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

Part of Backbench Business – in Westminster Hall at 3:47 pm on 1st March 2018.

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Photo of Mark Field Mark Field Minister of State 3:47 pm, 1st March 2018

It is a pleasure to be here, Sir David. I am delighted to represent the Government in this debate. I congratulate Jim Shannon on bringing this to the attention of the House—once again. [Laughter.] Joking aside, it is an enduringly important issue, not least, as has been mentioned, as we are in the midst of the 37th UN Human Rights Council.

I will touch on a number of points. First, I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman and all members of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief. Their tireless work and commitment to religious freedoms is not just important, but assists the Government in making their case. Every time I am abroad, as a Foreign and Commonwealth Office Minister, I can make the point that this is a big priority for Parliament, so this work is of considerable diplomatic importance. I apologise in advance if I fail to deal with one or two specific points. I will try to ensure that I write to colleagues.

The hon. Gentleman knows that his passion ties closely with my own instincts, which for 16 of the last 17 years were also held from the Back Benches. I contributed to many debates like this before I became a Minister. As he kindly pointed out, I have tried to use my ministerial office to make something of a difference to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s approach.

I was reproached by my hon. Friend Sir Edward Leigh. It was slightly tongue in cheek, but there is a level of seriousness about this. He will appreciate that we need to make the case for religious freedom across religions. I take the view of my hon. Friend Fiona Bruce that we need to make the case more robustly—I will try to do so in the months and years ahead—that those who choose not to have a religion should not face prejudice.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough is right, to a large extent, that there are some specific Christian issues. Those he raised about Iraq are absolutely terrible. As he rightly points out, for some 1,600, 1,700 or 1,800 years there were Christian villages in parts of Iraq and Syria where Christianity has now, I fear, been banished for good. The tragedy is that past totalitarian Governments looked after the interests of minorities—not just Christian minorities, but other religions—better than the new, so-called democratic Governments that have come into play have.

I hope my hon. Friend also recognises that we will, and must, make the case for religions other than Christianity. We are not blind to the fact that there are specific Christian and other minorities. I will do my level best for them, at least in the part of the world where I represent the Government.

I thank Fabian Hamilton for doing a fantastic job of summing up the debate. I will not go through that process again—I will try to say new things—but I wish to respond to one or two points.

I say to the hon. Member for Strangford that the UK co-sponsored last year’s resolution on Iran, and will co-sponsor a resolution along those lines again to renew the special rapporteur’s mandate. On Eritrea and the detention of Patriarch Antonios, we have called for his release with the EU and will continue to work at that level. As a Minister, I have found that working with international bodies can make a difference more generally.

I thank the hon. Member for Leeds North East for his kind words about Burma. What is happening to the Rohingya at the moment is dreadful. He will recognise that we have to work internationally, but one of our concerns about the UN is that, even at the Security Council resolution level, we run the risk of vetoes from China and Russia. I have to say—one or two of my colleagues had better close their ears while I do—that, in terms of international organisations, it is within the EU that we can make more of a difference. I was in Brussels on Monday and we worked together as EU nations. Of course, we will do so post-March 2019 as well. We often have to work on a multilateral basis in those areas. As the EU 28, we have started down the road towards sanctions against some of the military’s worst elements.

My hon. Friend Stephen Kerr rightly brought up the Baha’i community in Iran, about which we have repeatedly expressed concerns. We will continue to do so, I hope quite robustly, at the conference that is taking place.

Siobhain McDonagh talked about the Ahmadiyya in Pakistan. I know the mosque to which she referred. Lots of politicians seem to congregate there at election time, but she is a more regular attendee. I fully recognise her concerns and will come on to the specific work that we have done. I am working closely with my colleague, Lord Ahmad, who is an Ahmadiyya himself and, as the hon. Lady knows, was a councillor in Merton before going to the Lords.

My frequent jousting partner, Martin Docherty-Hughes, alluded to a consular case that we continue to work closely on. He made some profound points about Prime Minister Modi and about Christian and Sikh minorities in India. We will do our best to raise some of those in an appropriate manner at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in mid-April, to ensure that Parliament’s voice is properly heard. He will appreciate that diplomacy sometimes needs to be done behind closed doors, rather than with megaphones. He also made important points about China and the Roman Catholic Church. We will find ways to ensure that those points are addressed to the heads of missions and that we bring them up properly.

I apologise that I had to escape for a quick comfort break in the middle of the speech by Mrs Ellman, but I think I heard all her points. On the specific Yemeni case of Mr bin Haydara, we strongly condemn what is happening and are working with international bodies—the EU among others—to raise it directly with the Houthi authorities. My right hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East met the Baha’i community in London on 18 January. I will pass on the hon. Lady’s specific concerns. She will recognise that Yemen and Iran are not my part of the world, as it were, but those issues need to be properly raised.

As everyone remarked upon, my hon. Friend Bob Stewart made a very powerful speech. He rightly reminded us why we should never cease in our efforts to ensure proper freedom of religion and that religion is not used as an excuse for some of the worst aspects of humanity.

Mary Glindon spoke about Iran and the Baha’i community, which we are very concerned about. We will continue to express those concerns. I, too, admire its resilience in the most difficult circumstances. We have referred to Christian communities that have been banished after a millennium and a half of being somewhere, but the Baha’i community developed its religious base more recently. One can only admire its resilience.

I will come back to Martin Whitfield about his specific questions—he alluded to the fact that I would need to do that. He made a very thoughtful speech. We would like to get to the bottom of the situation that he rightly raised. We need to look at whether those with avowed religious beliefs are poorly represented among refugees or whether, as is a possibility, many are not expressing religious beliefs because they realise that they are likely to have great difficulty in refugee camps.

I will now turn to my own speech, as I know that other hon. Members want to return home. We in Government will remain committed to promoting and defending the right to freedom of religion or belief around the world, including the freedom to change religion and the right to have no religion at all.

At this point, I will reflect on the incredibly thoughtful speech of the one person I missed out: my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton. She rightly raised issues that are a lot closer to home. If I had one small point of disagreement with her, it would be this: we need to recognise that religious extremism is often the precursor to violence, which comes back to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham. Although the Government need to deal with that sensitively, I agree with her that all too often, our rather mealy mouthed political correctness threatens long-standing freedoms of religion.

On the day the Government jettisoned the Leveson inquiry as being a bit too difficult to implement, we might well reflect on her words about the desirability of insisting that politicians sign up to a pre-election pledge of presumably secular values. Like her, I hope we can think again before heading down a path that might have the unintended consequences to which she referred.

I have said this many times before, not least in this House, but it bears repeating. The Government promote freedom of religion not just because it is the right thing to do, or because religion matters to many around the world—some 80% of the world’s population are guided by their faith, according to the Pew Research Centre—but because where that freedom is absent or restricted, intolerance and mistrust can grow. In certain conditions, that mistrust can easily turn to violence and conflict, as has been alluded to.

Societies where people are free to practise their faith are almost always more prosperous and more stable. Evidence also suggests that tolerant societies are better equipped to deal with extremism. However, as we are all too aware, this fundamental freedom is being denied to countless millions across the world. Worse still, some face the most appalling persecution because of their faith or belief.

Our last debate on the subject was on International Freedom of Religion or Belief Day in October, after which my noble Friend the Minister for human rights, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, wrote to British ambassadors and high commissioners around the world about their everyday work promoting freedom of religion or belief. He and I then wrote jointly to British ambassadors and high commissioners across my patch—Asia and the Pacific—for an update on their work on freedom of religion or belief and details of the future work they envisage. Their responses included a number of interesting strategies and activities, many of which are necessarily conducted through discreet, patient diplomacy.

I should like to share briefly with the House some recent examples of what our posts around the world have been doing to promote and defend religious freedom, first through their bilateral relationships with host Governments and secondly through their project work. I pay tribute to hon. Members, because we have been able to make this case as a result of the pressure they have brought to bear. As a Minister, I feel proud to be able to ensure that so many of our overseas posts are on the front foot when it comes to addressing these issues.

In Nepal, our diplomats have raised and continue to raise our profound concerns about the provision in the new penal code that could be abused to curtail freedom of religion. We shall continue to ensure that its implementation is in line with international standards. Like the hon. Member for Strangford, I am especially displeased that Nepal’s legislation on blasphemy and conversions was being finalised at the very moment that the country was admitted to the United Nations Human Rights Council. I take this opportunity to put on record our concern about that.

We are concerned about the use of blasphemy laws in Indonesia and rising intolerance towards the Ahmadiyya, Shi’a and Christian communities. The UK, along with other EU member states, has made representations to encourage the Indonesian Government to ensure that blasphemy laws are not applied in a discriminatory manner. We have already made such representations in London, and I hope to do so again when I visit Indonesia later this year.

In Uzbekistan, our embassy has increased its engagement with religious communities, including by strengthening its connections with the country’s very diverse Christian denominations and Jewish communities and with Jehovah’s Witnesses, who are struggling to receive permission to worship across the country, as has been discussed. The UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Dr Ahmed Shaheed, visited Uzbekistan in October—the first visit from a UN special rapporteur in 15 years.

In my work with the UN, I have been struck by the fact that Kazakhstan, a member of the Security Council, is working closely with a number of other central Asian states. They have a long way to go, but I believe that many of these countries are very keen to become more active in the international community. Freedom of religion or belief is an issue on which, patiently and through diplomacy, we can bring some pressure to bear. I hope we will see some improvement.

Freedom of religion or belief remains a priority area for our engagement with China. We continue to raise our concerns on persecution of religious minorities through our UK-China human rights dialogue. It is worth putting on record that China is making significant progress on our priority issues, including climate change, human trafficking and modern slavery, and is taking a role in the international community. Progress has been made, and we need to give credit where it is due. We are making advances in certain areas, which I hope will be a precursor to improvement of religious tolerance along the lines that we have discussed.

As has been pointed out, Bangladesh has policies and laws intended to safeguard the rights of all citizens to practise their faiths freely. None the less, religious tolerance remains under pressure. Our high commission in Dhaka remains in regular contact with religious groups and leaders and is developing a strategy dedicated to addressing intolerance against religious minorities. Lord Ahmad publicly visited an Ahmadiyya mosque in Bangladesh last August, making a robust case for religious tolerance.

In Pakistan, our excellent high commission is working to promote religious tolerance; I saw that work for myself when I visited Pakistan in November. I have raised and will continue to raise the treatment of religious minorities—including discrimination and violence against the Ahmadiyya and Christian communities—with Pakistan’s Ministry of Human Rights.