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

Part of Backbench Business – in Westminster Hall at 2:28 pm on 1st March 2018.

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Photo of Martin Docherty Martin Docherty Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Industries for the future) 2:28 pm, 1st March 2018

It is good to see you in the Chair, Ms Buck. I congratulate my hon. Friend—I hope I can call him that—Jim Shannon on opening this debate in such a manner and highlighting many of the issues that belief and religious faith face across the world. I have to say that I am of dubious faith, but even we of dubious faith recognise the connection between the freedom and love of democracy and religious belief. It is a matter that we should take more seriously.

I want to highlight to the Minister the case of China very briefly and another state, India, in slightly more depth—something I am sure he is not surprised by. In the light of some of the situations faced by Christians in China, specifically Roman Catholics, I hope that the Minister, perhaps via the papal nuncio, will feed back to the Holy See that, in its deliberations with the People’s Republic of China to overcome some of their disagreements over the last 70 years, it might reflect on how the Roman Catholic faith survived the tyranny of western communism and how it should deal with the practice of Roman Catholicism in its connections with eastern Communism. Undermining the underground Roman Catholic Church in any fashion would be a retrograde step, not just for those practising their faith in the Roman Catholic fashion but for all people of faith in the People’s Republic of China.

I turn to the situation in India. The Republic of India, the world’s largest democracy, has a legal system based on common law, is a signatory to many UN declarations, including on human rights, and is a Commonwealth nation. I hope that the Government, through the Foreign Secretary, will raise a few points with President Modi and his officials at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting here in London in April.

According to some reports, appallingly, India has risen from the 28th most dangerous country in which to practise the Christian faith to the 11th. Christianity in India is not some modern belief flown in from the United States mid-west, but finds its roots in the Christianity of St Thomas the apostle between, some would say, the birth of Christianity and the 6th century. Yet well-known people in the state of India continue to call publicly for the country to be free of Christians by 2021. So far, there have been 23,000 incidents of physical and mental abuse against Christians of all denominations, and 635,000 Christians have reportedly been detained without trial or unfairly arrested. That is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of Christianity.

We should not forget the situation of Sikhs in India. Those in the Sikh community make up the largest proportion of the Indian diaspora in Scotland. Let us not confuse the expression of Sikh faith and its persecution in India with the authentic debate about self-determination. There should be no doubt that the Sikh community faces profound discrimination and intolerance in the practice of its faith. The number of Sikhs detained for very long periods by state authorities continues to rise across all the states that make up the Indian nation. That is a matter not only for those who practise the Sikh faith in India, but for every UK citizen—including many constituents of Members here—who wishes to travel to the Punjab to visit holy sites and/or their families.

Since the detention without charge of my constituent, Jagtar Singh Johal of Dumbarton, members of the Sikh community across the UK have become gravely concerned that they, too, may be detained on the simple premise of being a member of the Sikh faith. To travel to a Commonwealth nation in a situation like that is quite profound. I will therefore ask some specific questions of the Minister for the Government to consider.

First, when President Modi attends the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in April, what discussions will the UK Government have with the Government of India about the persecution of Christians? Secondly, what discussions will the UK Government have with the Government of India on the persecution of those of the Sikh faith? Thirdly, how will the Minister use the responses to his letters to heads of mission about freedom of religion or belief? How will those responses inform Foreign and Commonwealth Office policy, and how will the FCO encourage heads of mission to ensure that their diplomatic staff are trained to spot and resolve freedom of religion or belief violations? Finally, will the Government ask other Commonwealth nations in April what actions they are taking to build a more tolerant society, where religious belief is not only legislated for but defended?