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

Part of Backbench Business – in Westminster Hall at 2:34 pm on 1st March 2018.

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Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough 2:34 pm, 1st March 2018

We should congratulate Jim Shannon on how he introduced the debate and his work over many years to highlight these issues. I have joined him in many debates over the years. As usual, he spoke up in a powerful and noble way. I am grateful to all those who spoke before me, and I adopt all their points. I do not disagree with anything anyone said.

Siobhain McDonagh rightly described the persecution of Ahmadi Muslims. I was astonished by the reaction of the Iranian parliamentary delegation to this country that my hon. Friend Fiona Bruce mentioned. I agree that there are examples of politically correct magistrates and police officers being over-zealous in dealing with Bible preachers, and everything she said was right, but to equate that with a criminal regime in Iran that hangs and persecutes people and treats minorities with complete contempt is ridiculous. When we speak out, we should attack the really evil regimes around the world. There are forces for good that are trying to resolve difficult cases.

I say to Martin Docherty-Hughes that the papal nuncio has visited Parliament. We have been talking to him and to our ambassador to the Holy See in the past week, and the all-party group on the Holy See is going to the Vatican. The situation with the underground Church in China is unbelievably complex, but there is no question of the Catholic Church deserting those brave people. We hope some sort of compromise or consensus can be achieved with the Chinese Government.

The honest truth is that the people who are persecuted in the world are overwhelmingly either Christians or members of minority Muslim communities who are persecuted by majority Muslim communities. There are of course very bad examples of discrimination by Christians, but I hope that the Minister will not use the usual rather easy Foreign Office line that there is persecution everywhere in the world. I agree that there is persecution in too many parts of the world, and all persecution is terrible, but the people whose lives are made a complete and utter misery and who are overtly oppressed are overwhelmingly either Christians or members of minority Muslim groups.

We are going to stand up one by one and attack various Governments for persecuting people, so let me start with a good news story from Israel. Recently, the Israeli Parliament considered a private Member’s Bill that would have granted expansive powers to confiscate church property in Jerusalem. Astonishingly, it would have allowed the municipality to confiscate even properties that had previously been sold by church bodies. Such ex post facto laws are almost unheard of in Israeli jurisprudence. Indeed, traditionally, Christian communities have been protected in Israel.

The Christian community in the holy city united in protest and even closed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre for the first time in decades. Luckily, the Knesset suspended its consideration of the Bill, but the Israeli Prime Minister’s role in having it stopped is noteworthy. He stepped in, as The Jerusalem Post reported:

“Netanyahu became involved after it became clear that the closure of the church had the potential to cause Israel considerable diplomatic damage”.

Our Government should take heed. Diplomacy can work, and Her Majesty’s Government should not be afraid to protest or condemn, even when our close friends are involved.

Let me deal with one aspect of the persecution of Christians. There is a Christian Solidarity Worldwide briefing many pages long from which one could take numerous examples, but I want to deal with the persecution of Christians in the Nineveh plains of northern Iraq, mainly because I know the region and have visited it. All but one of the Christian villages I visited in the Assyrian plain near Mosul were overrun. The Iraqi Christian population numbered more than 1.4 million in the 1980s, before our disastrous invasion of Iraq. By mid-2015 it had declined to 275,000, and it had further declined to 200,000 by last year.

The Syriac Orthodox patriarch, Ignatius Aphrem II, told the recent Budapest international conference on persecuted Christians:

“I am afraid the day will come when our visitors come to see us as dummies in a museum, placed in old churches or monasteries. I fear that, in failure of the necessary steps, we may only become memories of the past in a very short time.”

If one goes to ancient Christian communities in the middle east, one hears the mass said in Aramaic, which is the language of Jesus Christ—the original language. However, we should listen to what the Syriac Orthodox patriarch said about Christians being driven out of the foundation place of Christianity.

The situation is not entirely hopeless. Many refugees who were only internally displaced have tried to move home and rebuild their communities.

I recently received a memorandum on the current status of Christians in northern Iraq from a member of the senior leadership of the Christian Church community in northern Iraq. I have met this gentleman and talked to him at length, but for security reasons I cannot give his name, because he is resident in the region. The fact I cannot do that, as he is scared for his safety if I read out his testimony, says something about the problems we face. Anyway, our friend in Iraq writes:

“The displaced Christians from the historically Christian towns of the Nineveh plain are in the midst of a gradual, often halting, return to their homelands. Of the…100,000 Christians originally displaced from the region, approximately 30,000 to 40,000 have begun efforts to move back. Of these, many have also still retained some form of residence in the greater Irbil region, where they took refuge during their displaced status. As such, there is continual movement back and forth between greater Irbil and the slowly rebuilding towns of Nineveh. ”

However, he goes on to point out that there has been almost no return of Christians to Mosul, because of justified fears for their safety in the city. I went to Mosul and saw the Christian communities there before ISIL—because of the appalling events there, nobody in their right mind would have gone anywhere near that city in recent times. Because of the security concerns there, Mosul’s Christians remain displaced. They cannot return home and rebuild their lives, and they cannot help Iraq return to some sense of normality and stability. Our correspondent notes that they

“are dependent largely upon the resources of the Christian churches and aid groups.”

Again, not all is hopeless; there are signs of progress. I am relieved to hear that the United Nations Development Programme has changed its previous policy and is now starting to work more closely with Church leadership in Nineveh, which provides almost the only real local government in the area. Hungary has been strong in its work in this field: in addition to appointing an ambassador-at-large for persecuted Christians, it has donated €2 million to help reconstruction in the villages of the Nineveh plain.

What can we do? How can the United Kingdom help? I turn to the Minister. Our friend on the ground in northern Iraq has given me concrete suggestions, which I put to the Minister and to which I hope he might respond. First, the UK Government need to put pressure on the leaders of the Kurdistan Regional Government and the central Government in Baghdad to resolve their disputes peacefully and swiftly. That is an easy ask, Minister, but it may be more difficult to achieve. The travel blockade that prohibits international air travel to Irbil is particularly debilitating and has had a disastrous effect on humanitarian relief and reconstruction efforts.

Secondly, we need to encourage the Iraqi Government to remove all paramilitary forces from the Nineveh plain and replace them with regular Iraqi army and security forces. The Hashd al-Shaabi units there are mostly Shi’a from southern Iraq, with Iranian backing, and their continued presence adds to uncertainty and insecurity about the future. Thirdly and finally, our Department for International Development needs to examine closely as a potential model the new co-operative relationship building between the United States Agency for International Development and the UNDP.

Our friend on the ground notes:

“In particular, we need to examine the structural forms of co-operation and co-ordination which are ensuring that practical and efficient working relationships are being established in which the Christian minorities are properly involved in the rehabilitation process. DFID should not be allowed to simply provide boilerplate representations regarding the effectiveness of the prior UNDP programs which the UN itself has admitted need to show greater responsiveness to the reality on the ground, a reality in which the Christian churches continue to provide the de facto local government leadership in their region. ”

My correspondent cites the example of the $55 million donated by USAID being deployed around the Nineveh plain in a co-ordinated approach, with close contact between the office of the UNDP director for Arab States and the Christian leadership in northern Iraq. He notes:

“This new approach has shown great early promise at improving efficient use of aid funding, and has significantly improved the confidence of the Christian minorities in the UNDP efforts.”

Yes, 3,557 houses have been burnt down, 13,088 houses have been severely damaged, 8,297 have been partly damaged, and reconstruction is very slow. We can be guilty of exacerbating these appalling problems because of our previous foreign policy. I do not want to go on about that—oceans of ink have been spilt on whether it was right to invade Iraq and to destabilise Saddam, Assad or Gaddafi—but all I will say, as I have said before, is that, in our perfectly justifiable attempts to improve democracy and undermine authoritarian regimes in these countries, we have unleashed totalitarian forces, and the victims of those forces have been the minority Christian communities. I hope the Minister will forgive me if I dwelt at some length on northern Iraq, but it is one of the most horrible, most pitiable and most terrible parts of the world.