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

Part of Backbench Business – in Westminster Hall at 3:03 pm on 1st March 2018.

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Photo of Mary Glindon Mary Glindon Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Farming and Rural Communities) 3:03 pm, 1st March 2018

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. It is quite difficult to follow Bob Stewart. He has provoked a lot of questions on why we think religious freedom is important and why we need to move forward with it and for the Government to do more to support oppressed people.

I congratulate Jim Shannon on persuading the Backbench Business Committee that we needed to have the debate at the time of the 37th session of the UN Human Rights Council. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for having been persuaded by him in his inimitable way.

I first heard about the Baha’i faith when I met Mr Dan Wheatley, who is a member of the community here and is a persuasive and strong advocate for that community. I subsequently joined the all-party parliamentary group on the Baha’i faith, of which my hon. Friend Mrs Ellman is the chair. The faith has been spoken about today. It is actually the world’s youngest independent religion. It was started in Iran, and it now has 188 communities around the world, all of which I consider follow a noble and caring teaching faith. Its teaching includes the oneness of humanity and, particularly, the equality of men and women.

However, like many other faiths that have been spoken about, the Baha’is have suffered periods of violence and oppression, in Iran and beyond, as has been eloquently described. Since the 1979 Islamic revolution, the Iranian Government have persecuted the Baha’is. In 1991, a Government memorandum, prepared at the request of the supreme leader, urged that the community should be treated in such a way that

“their progress and development shall be blocked.”

That memorandum, which established Iranian state policy towards the Baha’i community, remains in force. Other hon. Members may be aware of the document and the actions it mandates to repress the Baha’i people. I will focus particularly on one area: restrictions on the right to work. We talk a lot about how important employment is for everybody, not only in the economic but the social sense. A direct result of the memorandum is the Iranian Government’s discriminatory policy to prohibit and restrict the Baha’is’ right to employment—a policy that has been expanded over the years—which has had such an effect on the people in the community.

The hon. Member for Strangford rightly paid tribute to the life of Asma Jahangir, who was the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Iran at the time of her tragic death last month. In her last report, dated 14 August 2017, she noted:

“Baha’is continue to be systematically discriminated against and targeted, and efforts are afoot to systematically deprive them of the right to a livelihood.”

It is also notable that Iran’s actions are in contravention of a recommendation that it accepted from Sri Lanka at the start of the UNHCR’s last universal period review. Recommendation 138.88 stated that Iran should:

“Continue its national policy to promote equal opportunities and treatment with respect to employment.”

There are many examples of how Iran has failed to implement that recommendation, and I will highlight but a few. On 20 April 2016, 17 shops belonging to Baha’is were sealed for being temporarily closed on Baha’i holy days. Days later, on 28 April, four additional shops in the same province were sealed for the same reason. Later that year, after Baha’i-owned businesses throughout the province, in cities including Sari, Qaem Shahr and Bandar Abbas, were temporarily closed on 1 and 2 November to observe a Baha’i holy day, Iranian authorities sealed a total of 124 business premises belonging to 132 Baha’is.

Again, in July 2017, 16 Baha’i-owned business premises in Khuzestan province were sealed following the observance of another holy day. It was a small relief that, two months later, after great effort by the business owners, 14 of the sealed business premises were unsealed. In the same month, the business premises of a non-Baha’i in Ahvaz were sealed for employing a Baha’i. The owner of the business was forced to dismiss the employee and, after being provided with an assurance of non-co-operation with the Baha’is, the authorities issued an order to unseal the business. Further, on 1 May, the business premises of 18 business owners in a city were sealed by Amaken—the public places supervision office—again because they were closed on a religious holiday.

For us, it would seem impossible for that to happen in our country. There would be an outcry. But these Iranian citizens, who are simply trying to make a living while staying true to the faith that they have chosen to follow, are being treated in this way. I admire their courage and perseverance. I do not know whether I or anyone else in the room who has never had to suffer for their faith could endure such persecution. I confess that I would never want to be tested to such a degree. We all need to think about how we would deal with persecution and whether we would we be able to withstand it for our faith. The people who have been mentioned today, wherever they are, deserve our admiration.

In view of Iran’s failure to adhere to accepted international human rights standards, including commitments that their own Government have made within the framework of the universal periodic review, I urge the Government to continue to support, co-sponsor and lobby for the resolution on human rights in Iran at the Human Rights Council.

Finally, I support the request made by the hon. Member for Strangford that the UK raise the situation of the Baha’is in Iran in an agenda item 4 statement at the UN Human Rights Council, given the sad fact that Asma Jahangir is no longer with us. We are all united in this today. The fact that so many people have turned up on a cold afternoon, perhaps not knowing whether they will get home this evening, shows that we ardently feel that religious freedom should be upheld.