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 hon. Lady for bringing that up. I was not aware of that one, but we will certainly pursue it through the APPG.

There has been a surge in ultra-nationalist rhetoric across Turkey, alongside hate speech and incitement to violence against non-Sunni Muslims. Religious minority groups face growing harassment, and foreign missionaries have been arrested and deported. Most notably, in 2016 the American pastor Andrew Brunson was arrested, along with his wife, and accused of being a threat to national security—the threat being that he was a Christian in Turkey, preaching the gospel to people who wanted to hear it. Where is the threat in that? The European Court of Human Rights has made many judgments on those and other long-standing issues, such as the right to raise one’s children in line with one’s religious or philosophical views, the right to establish places of worship and the right not to disclose one’s religious beliefs, but they have not been addressed by the Turkish Government.

Egypt may have fallen off the map a wee bit, but I could not be here without mentioning it. Egypt has many serious human rights issues, including restrictions on freedom of association, freedom of expression and freedom of religion or belief. In recent years, Egyptian authorities have used torture and enforced disappearance against hundreds of people, and dozens have been extra-judicially executed. In addition, last year more than 100 Christians were killed in terror attacks amid an atmosphere of continued impunity for sectarian violence. In November 2017 gunmen attacked a mosque in North Sinai, killing over 300 people—the deadliest attack seen in Egypt for many years.

In December 2017 the head of the Egyptian Parliament’s committee on religion said that a new law was being drawn up to criminalise atheism. Well, the APPG that I have the privilege of chairing speaks up for those of Christian faith, of other faiths and of no faith, and that is contrary to what we believe in. The freedom to have one’s own thoughts is very much part of a democratic society. That law seems not to have had much support, although that is probably because the Egyptian criminal code already has severe provisions that can be used to target both atheists and “apostates”, to use their language.

It is important to highlight the plight of the Baha’is in Iran, as we often do in this House. While many religious and belief groups are persecuted by the Iranian regime, Baha’is are a particular target for official persecution. Since 1979, Iranian authorities have killed or executed more than 200 leaders of the Baha’i faith and nearly 1,000 Baha’is have been arbitrarily arrested in the last decade. Baha’is have been murdered simply for their faith.

I have a small but vibrant and particularly vocal Baha’i group in my constituency. I have attended their events, and I know they will be encouraged that the plight of Baha’is being mentioned in this House. They are often denied the right to higher education or prevented from working, and often their lands or businesses are taken away from them. Despite the presidency of the supposedly centrist Rouhani, oppression of the Baha’is in Iran is getting worse.

Hon. Members will know how important FORB is to me, as it is to them. I was going to say that I should stop speaking so that others have something to talk about but, tragically, as Andrew Selous said, there is no shortage of topics to cover when we look at what is happening across the world.

FORB is a fundamental human right not only because of its importance to human dignity and flourishing, but because of the role it plays in preventing conflict and maintaining stability. I thank the Government for their commitment to this right and humbly suggest that, to advance FORB even further, the Minister should consider: producing plans to provide DFID and Ministry of Defence staff with FORB literacy training; encouraging the development of Government and civil society programmes that promote FORB; and working with FCO and DFID country heads to develop country-specific FORB strategies.

I am sure that those from Christian Solidarity Worldwide will not mind me saying that just this week an event took place in the House—many Members present attended it—on its toolkit for standing up for freedom of religion or belief. It has produced a really good publication—if the Minister did not get a copy, I will make sure that he does—which is a toolkit for all of us individually but also for civil servants and those in departments across the world.

Hopefully these recommendations can help make a difference for religious or minority groups in countries such as Pakistan, India, Nepal, Turkey, Egypt and Iran who are being denied their right to FORB. The sheer volume of FORB violations in those countries—and elsewhere, including the UK—points us to the importance of International Freedom of Religion or Belief Day, which necessarily gives us the opportunity to come together and stand up for all those who are suffering, all those who are attacked, and all those who have to struggle and fight for something we take for granted. I come back to Pakistan where, as the hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston knows, we went to church under police protection. By comparison, here in the United Kingdom we at least have the freedom to go to church and worship our God.

As parliamentarians, it is our duty to stand up for people, wherever they may be. To help with that, I direct hon. Members to the toolkit produced by Christian Solidarity Worldwide. I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for coming to the debate. We may never meet some of the people across the world on whose behalf we are speaking, but today we have the opportunity to speak on their behalf.