International Freedom of Religion or Belief Day — [Mr Charles Walker in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 1:30 pm on 25th October 2018.

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Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 1:30 pm, 25th October 2018

I thank the right hon. Lady for making that point. We highlighted the persecution of religious minorities when we visited Pakistan. To illustrate her point, 13,600 people have been abducted in Punjab province, and there have been 2,900 rapes and 190 gang rapes of women. The level of sexual violence against women is despicable and bothers me greatly, as I am sure it bothers everyone else in the House. That is an indication—it starts with that and then goes on to everything else. The right hon. Lady is absolutely right, and the horrendous statistics back up her point.

Of course, protecting FORB not only is vital for individual welfare but plays a key role in preventing social instability. Although stability is a complex phenomenon, the case of Myanmar shows how unaddressed Government and social persecution of religious groups can explode into violence, undermining stability and creating humanitarian crises. Indeed, the UN specifies that discriminatory practices, or targeting communities based on their identity, is a key risk factor for atrocity crimes.

In September, the House of Lords International Relations Committee published evidence from the UN and the World Bank highlighting that

“the tipping point for joining a violent” terrorist

“group was usually some sort of violation of law, or a sense of violation of law”.

That goes back to what the right hon. Lady said. That shows that making sure that human rights are protected can play an important role in ensuring stability and preventing violent conflict, which in turn is vital to long-term economic development.

The Select Committee on Foreign Affairs recently stated:

“Promoting the rule of law and democracy globally is key to developing the UK’s prosperity.”

In the short term, the Committee stated, the Government

“will face conflicting priorities between human rights and other Government policies, especially trade deals.”

We need to be careful about those. The Committee continued:

“This may create short term conflicts, but the prioritisation of human rights is in the UK’s long-term commercial, as well as moral, interest.”

I hope the Minister can tell us something positive about that in his response.

Given the importance of protecting FORB and marking International Freedom of Religion or Belief Day, I want to make five recommendations that might help in the significant efforts being made to advance FORB. I will then briefly discuss FORB issues in several countries in south Asia and the middle east, namely Pakistan, India, Nepal, Turkey, Egypt and Iran.

My first recommendation is for Departments that are significantly affected by FORB issues, such as the Ministry of Defence and the Department for International Development, to produce strategic plans for how they can advance this fundamental right and for them to work regularly with Lord Ahmad to co-ordinate their work. That is important. Would the Minister be willing to encourage those Departments to develop such plans? Will he also push for FORB literacy training for staff, so that they can understand the religious dynamics and tensions that clearly exist in the countries in which they work?

Secondly, DFID operates in many countries that have severe levels of discrimination and violence towards certain religious or belief groups. In these countries, DFID could encourage more non-governmental organisations to develop programmes that promote the welfare of marginalised communities and help to reduce tensions between religious or belief groups in conflict. Would the Minister be willing to encourage and support DFID to take such action? I know he would—I know I am pushing at an open door, to be honest—but I want to put the point on record. Will he ensure within DFID that modules that teach respect for people of all faiths and none are included in more education programmes, as well as capacity building programmes for police, civil servants, NGOs and other groups? I will not steal anyone else’s thunder, but it was important to see the police and other departments in Pakistan working to ensure that these things happen as well.

Finally in this section, I commend the Minister for the Government’s role in developing country-specific strategies for advancing FORB. Will he continue to work with FCO heads of mission and DFID country heads to produce more of these plans for promoting FORB?

The hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston, the noble Lord Alton of Liverpool and I made a trip to Pakistan; the hon. Lady will speak about that and I will let her refer to it, because it is important to do so. Religious minorities including Christians, Hindus, Ahmadis and other groups face very significant persecution in Pakistan and are severely marginalised.

When we were there, we visited some of the slums where the Christians, for example, were living. It is very hard, and none of us was not touched by what we saw. Any slum where any group lives is horrific, but we went to the Christian slum in particular, where there were 48,000 people living in 8,000 houses. It was quite unbelievable. I call them houses, but they were rudimentary. They were never more than a single block or a wooden frame with a carpet thrown over it. There was a single hose that ran through the slum, and open sewers. One thing about it, which the hon. Lady will speak about, is that the children were happy, smiling and clean. There was certainly a willingness to try to do something.

I do not do the pools, but if I did, or if I won the lottery, I would certainly give whatever money I won to do a project there. I have spoken to the Minister of State, Department for International Development, Alistair Burt, and I intend to put forward some programmes that he might be sympathetic to assisting out there for all those who live in slums—all those minority groups, whatever they may be. It is important to do that.

I want to comment quickly on the 5% employment quota for non-Muslim Pakistanis. It is all very well for the Government to set a 5% quota for religious minorities to achieve jobs, but if people do not have the education to get those jobs and achieve the goal, it does not matter very much. The Minister has kindly said that he will look at that as well.

I also want to speak about possible reforms to the criminal law to prevent the persecution of religious or belief minorities in Pakistan. I will not go into too much detail, because some of it has been highly confidential, as the Minister knows, but I will say that we had the opportunity to meet two of the three judges who will decide the fate of Asia Bibi, who has been in prison under a death sentence for eight years, separated from her husband and family. We need a law that does not penalise people or treat them adversely, because someone with malicious intent can make an allegation, which is clearly what we have seen in this case. We made those comments clear, although I will say no more about that, other than to say that the hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston will comment on it.

Next, I will speak about the FORB situation in India. Despite Prime Minister Modi’s pledged commitment to “complete freedom of faith”, since his election in 2014 there has been a significant increase in anti-minority rhetoric and mob violence against Muslims and other minorities. Let us be quite clear: I am here to speak for every religious minority, as Dr Huq, who intervened earlier, knows. I am here to speak for all religious minorities, wherever they may be. We have spoken about the Uyghur Muslims in China; we will speak about the clear persecution of Muslims in India. I want to speak up for those people as well and ensure that the Indian Government are aware of their commitment to international religious freedom through the UN. There have also been hundreds of attacks on Christians.

Worryingly, at the end of July 2018, in Assam State, the Indian Government effectively stripped 4 million people, mostly Muslims, of their citizenship, branding them illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh. How annoying and frustrating is it to watch a democratic country specifically targeting those of other religious beliefs? The situation bears worrying similarities to the plight of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, who in 1982 also had their citizenship removed and were labelled Bangladeshi before being attacked by the Burmese military.

It is hard not to get emotional, strongly agitated and full of angst about what is taking place across the world, because there is so much happening. This debate is a chance to reiterate those points, and others will do so. All this is very concerning, not only for obvious reasons, but because violence and discrimination could cause significant grievance among the 250 million-strong non-Hindu population of India, leading to instability. Mob violence has already increased significantly across India, and in the past few months both ISIS and al-Qaeda have called on India’s Muslim population—predicted to be the second largest, if not the largest, in the world—to “take revenge”. We have a difficult situation developing in that country, and if the Indian Government do not start to do something about it, we are in great trouble.