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

Part of Backbench Business – in Westminster Hall at 3:28 pm on 1st March 2018.

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Photo of Fabian Hamilton Fabian Hamilton Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow Minister (Defence) 3:28 pm, 1st March 2018

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Sir David. I join my colleagues in congratulating Jim Shannon, my good friend—I hope he does not mind my calling him that—over many years, who was able to table the debate, and in acknowledging the Backbench Business Committee for allowing us the time this afternoon.

It is rare to have a debate of this kind. It brought hon. and right hon. Members together from across the House in a range of emotional, moving contributions and speeches, in which they spoke as one against discrimination against and persecution of people with or without religious beliefs. It is a rare thing in the House that we come together to fight that discrimination across the world and, indeed, in our own society, so I congratulate my friend the hon. Member for Strangford.

The hon. Gentleman drew our attention to a number of issues across the world, not least in Nigeria, where armed Muslim bands have been persecuting Christian farmers over 17 years. The violence is on an unprecedented scale, and we do not often see it reported in the media here. He also mentioned the threat to religious minorities in Nepal. That really grieves me as a person who has visited Nepal on several occasions and was an observer at the elections there in 2013. It is tragic that it is prepared to introduce new laws on blasphemy and religious conversion and is joining the United Nations Human Rights Council at the very moment when it is being intolerant of religious minorities.

We heard much this afternoon, and not just from the hon. Gentleman, about persecution of the Baha’is in Iran. I certainly join him in asking the Government to make a statement on their views on the persecution of the Baha’is, which happens in both Iran and Yemen, as we heard. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the forced conversions that we have seen, in the media, in Pakistan. I think that he was the only Member to draw attention to the situation with the Eritrean Government, who see freedom of religion as a threat to them and demand that religions be registered in that country.

The hon. Gentleman, very movingly, drew our attention to and rightly praised the UN rapporteur Asma Jahangir, who died on 11 February. It was a really good eulogy and an appreciation of a woman who has not had the coverage and publicity that she deserved. We will not forget that she was born in Lahore, but her alma mater was the London School of Economics. She was educated, in other words, in this country; we should be very proud of her as well.

We then heard from Stephen Kerr, who said that we must continuously make the case for religious freedom. He made a passionate contribution on the basis of his deeply felt personal faith. He also mentioned Iran’s persecution of the Baha’i minority.

My hon. Friend Siobhain McDonagh has been absolutely brilliant in upholding the rights of the Ahmadi community, not just in her constituency, where they are well established—their philosophy is, “Love for all, hatred for none”—but throughout this country where Ahmadis have been persecuted and, more importantly, in Pakistan, where they suffer the most appalling abuse and, of course, arbitrary arrest and worse. My hon. Friend is a champion of the rights of the Ahmadi Muslim community, and long may that continue. She has upheld the rights of Ahmadis throughout the world and drawn their situation to the attention of right hon. and hon. Members and the media. I congratulate her on her excellent contribution.

We then heard from my hon. Friend—I hope that she will not mind my calling her that—Fiona Bruce. She and I served together on the Select Committee on International Development. When Members serve on a Select Committee and travel across the world, they get to know one another right across the parties and they grow to respect one another, which is the way it should be.

My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton has always been a spokesperson not only for her deeply held Christian faith, but for the rights of other religious minorities. She talked about atheists in Egypt and the way they are persecuted. She raised the case of Ibrahim Khalil and said that the Parliament in Cairo is now considering a law to criminalise atheism. That is extraordinary. She raised the repeated attacks on Coptic Christians, and the murder and brutality that they experience. She said that freedom of religion is also under attack in the UK today—perhaps not on the scale seen in other countries, but intolerance is being shown in spite of the right that was declared in Magna Carta all those centuries ago. My hon. Friend’s speech was detailed, well informed and very carefully written.

Martin Docherty-Hughes told us about religious persecution in China and India. It is very important to remember that in those countries, and despite the fact that India is the largest democracy in the world, there is still religious persecution and on a scale unimaginable in parts of Europe. He said that Christianity is more persecuted in India now than it ever has been. Of course, we must also remember the plight of the Sikhs in Punjab. Many of us represent strong Sikh communities. I recently had the privilege to be in Kerala, where I met a Christian preacher, Dr Paul Chellakumar. I do not think that he will mind my mentioning his name in the House in this debate, because he goes around the villages, small towns and communities in Kerala, preaching the message of the gospel. Kerala is home to the largest minority of Christians in India; many are from a Catholic background. Indeed, I met the Indian Minister of State responsible for tourism, the federal Minister for tourism, whose first name is Alphons, which is not a very Indian name.

We then heard from Sir Edward Leigh, who made it clear that there should be no comparison between Iran’s persecution of religious minorities and any issues that we may have in the UK. Of course, he is absolutely right, but that does not mean that discrimination in the UK should go unnoted. We should of course draw attention to it, as I am sure he would agree. The hon. Gentleman also talked, with great knowledge and experience, about the persecution of Christians in northern Iraq. He mentioned Mosul. I was in Baghdad just a few days ago with an Inter-Parliamentary Union delegation, and we heard even more detail of the appalling destruction of western Mosul—the final town to be taken by Iraqi forces when Daesh was expelled. We were told by the United Nations and by Iraqi interlocutors that the destruction in western Mosul is now worse than the destruction in Dresden during the second world war, and that there are more than 30,000 IEDs—improvised explosive devices—unexploded, undetonated. Many of them are attached not just to the rubble, but to the corpses within that rubble. The UN estimates that it will take 10 years to clear the rubble away. The hon. Gentleman also mentioned, of course, the Christians of Nineveh. We heard a great deal about them on our visit to Baghdad.

Then we heard from my hon. Friend Mrs Ellman, who does such brilliant work chairing the all-party parliamentary group on the Baha’i faith and has drawn attention over and over again to the persecution of Baha’is not just in Iran but, as she told us, in Yemen. She told us about the case of Hamed bin Haydara. I dare say that that is not a unique case, but it is one that we really need our Government to draw attention to in the Human Rights Council and in all their discussions with Iran and the Yemenis, as well as with the UN. Iran, she said, calls this the Baha’i question. I just say to Members: where have we heard that before? Substitute the word “Jewish” for “Baha’i”, and we know what we are talking about there. I thank my hon. Friend for her excellent contribution.

Then we were all hushed into total silence by, and paid great attention to, Bob Stewart. We have heard his contributions on many occasions and we know his background and the bravery and leadership that he showed when he was the British commander of UN forces in Bosnia from 1992 to 1993. That is the thing that most people know about him, but I had never heard, and I am not sure that other hon. Members ever had, the story, the description, of the slaughter in that village, which obviously so profoundly affected him and which he called religious genocide. I thank him for that contribution. It behoves all of us to listen to that history and try to learn the lessons of it. We must do all we can to eliminate the bigotry of religious genocide. It is truly shocking, even all these years later. I thank him very much for reminding us.

My hon. Friend Mary Glindon talked about the Baha’i faith being the world’s newest and founded in Iran, and said that Iran continues to persecute Baha’is and prohibit them from one of the most inalienable rights of all people, which is the right to work, the right to earn a living, the right to have dignity in work.

My hon. Friend Martin Whitfield talked about the need for Governments and Parliaments to say, “Together, we are stronger,” and to remember what is happening in Yemen. He said that of course there are no simple answers, but differences in religion should never be an excuse for treating people differently. I am sure that we can all agree with that.

This debate, as has already been said, is timed to coincide with the 37th session of the UN Human Rights Council, which is being held from 26 February to 23 March. The United Kingdom, as we know, is party to the international covenant on civil and political rights, and article 9 of the European convention on human rights, which is part of the Human Rights Act 1998 and protects freedom of religion or belief.

The number of countries that regulate religious symbols, literature or broadcasting has increased dramatically over the last 20 years and religious persecution has increased since 2000, globally and really disturbingly. I think it useful to quote again from article 18 of the universal declaration of human rights:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion;
this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

It does not protect someone’s religion or belief from being subject to adverse comments or insults. Article 9 of the European convention adds:

“Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.”

That could, perhaps, be taken both ways. I hope not. We have seen that violation of freedom of religion and belief is a global issue. Some 80% of the world’s population now live in countries with high or very high levels of restriction and hostility towards certain beliefs. That has to be changed.

I would like to turn to a couple of areas that have not been covered in detail this afternoon. First, the situation in Myanmar—Burma—and the persecution of the Rohingya Muslims. They are the world’s most persecuted minority. They have been denied citizenship in that country since 1982 and are thus effectively stateless. Human Rights Watch has called the violence against the Rohingya “ethnic cleansing”. More than half of the Rohingya population of Myanmar—1.2 million in total—have fled the country, mainly to Bangladesh, during this current wave of violence. I know that the Minister is doing all he can and he has made statements in the House accordingly. I know the Foreign Office is deeply concerned. I hope it will work even harder. It will certainly have the Opposition’s support in anything it can do to try to stop the violence and help the Rohingya.

In China, article 36 of the Chinese constitution states that Chinese citizens

“enjoy freedom of religious belief”.

It bans discrimination based on religion and forbids state organs or individuals to compel citizens to believe in, or not to believe in, any particular faith. However, the state recognises only five religions: Buddhism, Catholicism, Daoism, Islam and Protestantism. Clearly, it does not recognise Judaism, although I do not think there are many Jews in China. Chinese authorities tightly control religious activity, as we know. However, they tightly control it even further for the Uyghur Muslim community in the province of Xinjiang. The state also monitors the Tibetan Buddhists in the Tibetan autonomous region, as they call it, to quell dissent, because they regard Tibetans as a threat to the state. That is a cause I have been involved in over many years. China also calls the Falun Gong, which has not been mentioned this afternoon, a cult, and thousands of Falun Gong practitioners have been sent to jail since 2015. We have heard, of course, about the organ harvesting that they claim is being practised against them.

In Bangladesh, the constitution protects religious freedom and equality for all, yet the Government of Bangladesh have been criticised for not tackling adequately the increasing Muslim extremism that is targeting the Hindu and Christian minority. I hope the Minister will mention that in his summing up.

We have heard a great deal about Iran, but of course the number of the Baha’i community in Iran is now up to 300,000, although nobody knows truly how many Baha’is live in Iran. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside, who chairs the all-party parliamentary group on the Baha’i faith, knows more than I do about that.

We have not heard about Saudi Arabia—one of the most intolerant countries in the world—where apostasy, the act of conversion to another faith, is punishable by death, as is the case in Iran. In Egypt, as has been mentioned, Copts have been targeted, often by Muslim extremists, with the suicide bombings of churches and religious meetings, and the Government continue to restrict the building of churches. I will not even talk about Daesh, because I want to leave the Minister enough time to answer all the points that have been made.

In winding up, I want to draw attention to a couple more areas. One is the general persecution of Christians. We have heard about Christian persecution in many countries, including Egypt and Pakistan. Christians are also persecuted in North Korea and, as we have heard, in Nigeria and Eritrea. We have also talked about Nepal, which has criminalised Christian conversion and evangelism. We have not mentioned Jehovah’s Witnesses, who are banned in Russia, as the Government consider them an extremist organisation. Many of us may have our doubts about Jehovah’s Witnesses, but I would not call them a terrorist or extremist organisation.

In the United Kingdom, according to data released by the Community Security Trust, the number of anti-Semitic incidents has risen by more than one third to record levels in 2016. According to the London Metropolitan police, the number of hate crimes against Muslims has increased from 343 incidents in 2013 to 1,260 in 2016. The Casey review highlighted that in 2015, polling showed that at least 55% of the general public believe there is a fundamental clash between Islam and the values of British society. That is something that we in this House can change together, if we are so minded.

Finally, let me quote the Minister of State, Department for International Development, Harriett Baldwin. She said:

“All our partners carry out comprehensive vulnerability assessments to ensure aid”— that we give from the United Kingdom—

“is reaching those most in need, including those from religious minorities as it is already recognised that religion may be a factor in causing vulnerability.”

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s 2017 report, “Freedom of Religion or Belief Toolkit” states that

“it is in the interests of the UK to help people to enjoy freedom of religion or belief and to end discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief.”