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

Part of Backbench Business – in Westminster Hall at 2:13 pm on 1st March 2018.

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Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton 2:13 pm, 1st March 2018

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on the subject of freedom of religion or belief. I was going to speak about three countries, Nepal, Egypt and our own, but Jim Shannon, who spoke so eloquently at the start of the debate, has already discussed Nepal, so I will limit my speech to just two countries.

I want to highlight the latest position for those of religious minorities and atheists in Egypt. At the end of last year, a 35-year-old man told the news agency Al-Monitor:

“Atheists in Egypt are afraid to publicly come out as such. If you proclaim yourself a nonbeliever, you literally open the gates of hell;
you stand to lose many of your friends and will be treated like an outcast. Your own family may accuse you of mental illness and possibly disown you. We are being forced to live as hypocrites for fear of facing discrimination and harassment.”

He also said that the situation was getting worse.

A number of recent cases back up that claim. In December, Egyptian security forces arrested Ibrahim Khalil, a 29-year-old computer science graduate, who prosecutors at the Dokki police station interrogated for five hours on accusations of “defaming religion” and “administering a Facebook page that promotes atheism”. He was ordered to be detained pending further investigation. The Egyptian Parliament has recently been discussing a Bill to criminalise atheism, classifying it as contempt of religion, which is punishable by up to five years in prison under Egyptian law.

I encourage the UK Government to seek to persuade the Egyptian Government to end discriminatory and restrictive policies, including legislation banning atheism and minority faith groups, as well as legislation restricting church construction, and processes that make registration of conversion challenging. I am pleased to see the Minister for Asia and the Pacific, my right hon. Friend Mark Field, in his place today because he has taken a genuine personal interest in this subject over many years. I am confident that he will refer it to his Foreign and Commonwealth Office colleagues, who I know have previously expressed concern about the situation in Egypt.

I must also mention, once again, attacks on Coptic Christian churches in Egypt. Most recently, over the past 12 months, more than 100 Christians have been killed, according to Christian Solidarity Worldwide. I commend the work of CSW, in particular its recent publication, “Faith and a Future: Discrimination on the Basis of Religion or Belief in Education”, launched at the CSW meeting earlier this week in this place, which a number of us attended. If the Minister has not received a copy, I hope he will accept mine, because it contains many recommendations.

Turning back to the position of Christians in Egypt, in April last year, attacks on two churches killed 44 and left scores injured. In May, at least 28 people were killed and 23 injured when masked gunmen opened fire on three vehicles transporting members of the Coptic community to the St Samuel the Confessor monastery. In October, an extremist attacked Father Samaan Shahata Rizkallah, a 50-year-old Coptic Orthodox priest, chasing him, stabbing him repeatedly in the head, neck and abdomen with a meat cleaver, and imprinting a cross on his forehead. Father Samaan died from his injuries. In December, in the Helwan neighbourhood south of Cairo, a gunman attacked a Coptic-owned shop, killing two brothers. Later that day, the same gunman attempted to storm Mar Mina church, killing members of the congregation and a police officer at the checkpoint guarding the church. Several others were wounded. The gunman was endeavouring to enter the church to detonate explosives, but fortunately was intercepted and arrested.

These are incidents, the like of which we have heard time and again in Egypt over recent years. I implore the Minister and the UK Government to call on the Egyptian Government to ensure that all such attacks are thoroughly investigated, with perpetrators brought to justice and proper investigations launched, so that accusations of complicity—including within the security forces—are also investigated. Will the Government encourage the Egyptian Government to ensure that the measures put in place to combat terrorism do not violate human rights, including freedoms of association, expression and religion or belief?

Given that, I want to reflect on how and why the UK should lead on matters of religious freedom. I want to express concern about freedom of religion or belief in our own country. In more than seven years in this place, I have spoken many times, including in this Chamber, about challenges to religious freedom in other countries. I have to confess, however, that while I was preparing for this debate I was in some trepidation about speaking about the subject with reference to our own country—I thought I might be seen as somewhat out of kilter with what we call the “mood of the room”. So it was with some relief that I heard other Members speaking about their concerns about challenges to freedom of religion or belief in this country. I am therefore somewhat surprised, but ironically also very pleased, that I appear to be echoing concerns already expressed by colleagues relatively early in the debate. As has been said, we cannot credibly ask other countries to pursue religious freedom diligently if we do not do so ourselves.

Our former, well-respected colleague, who spoke many times about this subject, David Burrowes, the former MP for Enfield, Southgate, told me today about a meeting that he and Jeremy Corbyn held with an Iranian parliamentary delegation in the last Parliament. David Burrowes challenged that delegation on human rights issues in their country, including the persecution of Christians. They challenged back, picking up on abuses in this country, and in effect said, “Put your own house in order before you criticise us.”

Precious religious freedoms have been hard won in this country over centuries by many, including free church Christians, Catholics and Jewish people. As the recent publication, “Turn the Tide: Reclaiming Religious Freedoms in the UK”, reminds us:

“The very first clause of Magna Carta includes the statement…‘The English Church shall be free, and shall have its rights undiminished, and its liberties unimpaired’”.

That is one of only four of the Magna Carta’s 63 clauses that remain part of the English law. It ends:

“This freedom we shall observe ourselves, and desire to be observed in good faith…in perpetuity.”

From the 16th century, Britain led the world in developing those freedoms, spreading them to other countries round the globe. Many died to achieve those freedoms; others were imprisoned or exiled, or had to leave the country; others were denied an education, not allowed to hold jobs in the public sector or stand for Parliament, simply because of their faith. William Tyndale gave his life so that the Bible could be freely read in England. John Bunyan, author of “The Pilgrim’s Progress”, spent 12 years in Bedford County Gaol for the right to preach and worship freely.

The hard-won freedom of religion is under attack in the UK today, whether unintentionally by those who lack religious literacy, more deliberately from aggressive secularists, through attacks by one faith on another, or simply by those who ridicule people of faith in the 21st century. Those people are ridiculing our Queen and our Prime Minister, both of whom have very publicly declared faith. We hear of British adults who were raised in other religions and converted to Christianity being subjected to extraordinary abuse, including physical violence. One from the north of England wrote to his MP about his family’s troubles. He said:

“We were forced out of our…home after…several years of suffering as the form of persecution which entailed assault, daily intimidation, criminal damage to property: smashing house windows and also 3 vehicles written off”.

In fact, the empty house next to them was set on fire, in the hope that the fire would spread to their property. Eventually, the family was moved out under armed police protection to a new home elsewhere in the country.

Two street preachers were arrested and prosecuted in 2017 for peaceably preaching from the Bible—we know that they were peaceable because there was a film of the event. A Crown prosecution lawyer suggested at the court hearing that publicly quoting from the Bible should be considered a criminal offence. The street preachers were fined but later acquitted on appeal to the Crown court. Their case is seriously disturbing. The fact that the police and Crown Prosecution Service decided to prosecute the men simply for publicly reading the Bible challenges the long-established freedom in this country to do that. That was one of the very first aspects of freedom of religion to be established, when in 1537 Henry VIII issued a royal decree to that effect. As I have mentioned, that was the freedom that William Tyndale died for in 1536.

Let it be said and heard in this Parliament that reading the Bible in public is not a criminal offence in this country in the 21st century. The case I have mentioned appears to have resulted from a misunderstanding of the law by public officials, but such instances are deeply concerning and have a so-called chilling effect on the freedom that many Christians feel they have to speak about their faith in public in this country. That is deeply troubling, and we in this place, who value freedom of speech so preciously, need to be more keenly aware of it and call it out. I am not saying that every complaint of religious discrimination we hear is justified—sometimes we might not hear the whole story—but there have been enough instances in recent years to cause us concern.

Parliamentary colleagues in this room may remember the assault that took place against the Brethren denomination just a few years ago, when the Charity Commission sought to remove its charitable status. I remember more than 40 MPs crowding into this very room to raise objection after objection. More recently, we have had to combat the suggestion—again in this very room—from the Government, that churches running more than six to eight hours of Sunday school or youth clubs each week should have to register with the authorities and be monitored by Ofsted for the content of their teaching. That suggestion would have turned the clock back two centuries in terms of religious freedom in this country. I sincerely hope that, as there has been no public announcement on that proposal, the Government have quietly dropped it.

Even more recently, there has been a suggestion that those wanting to hold public office should have to swear an oath supporting a currently undefined set of 21st-century British values. That harks back to my earlier reference to people being barred from public office because of their religious beliefs. Great work was done through the 18th and 19th centuries to remove such barriers to people becoming school teachers, Army officers, lawyers, mayors, or students or academics at Oxford or Cambridge Universities. Drawing up a new set of beliefs that people have to sign up to could take us back to the 17th century, and attempts to draw one up have been troubled. Although most things on such a list would be universal values, not necessarily everything would be. If the Government are still considering that suggestion, I urge them to reconsider it and to withdraw it.

The issue of freedom of religion, belief and expression in our country merits much further attention. Government need to ensure that UK laws that target violent extremism do so precisely and do not impinge on the religious freedoms of peaceable citizens, whose faith often motivates them to contribute very positively to society. To that end, Government should consider requiring officials to include religious belief in the equalities impact assessment, along with the current criteria of race, disability and gender, to ensure protection from discrimination. After all, religious belief is also a protected characteristic.

It would be beneficial for Government to look at ways to improve religious literacy across Departments and public officials, as suggested in the report, “Improving Religious Literacy”, published in 2017 by the all-party parliamentary group on religious education, which I have the privilege of chairing. That is being done in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development. I very much welcome that recent work, but it needs to be done more widely. If we are to be coherent and carry integrity internationally, religious freedom in this country must be nurtured, manifested and supported as well as it is abroad.