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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 1:56 pm on 25th October 2018.

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Photo of Jeremy Lefroy Jeremy Lefroy Conservative, Stafford 1:56 pm, 25th October 2018

I am most grateful to the Minister, who takes his role incredibly seriously. We are proud to have him in that position.

As Members of Parliament, we are honoured to be able to travel quite a lot. I encourage all Members, when traveling to another country—even if it is not part of their role, or they may be on a Committee visit—to meet people of faith or no faith who are being persecuted, or who are experiencing that sort of problem. I have done that on some occasions. I have also met people of minority faiths who are supported and do not have a problem. On a recent visit to Kosovo—a predominantly Muslim country, but one that has freedom of religion enshrined in its constitution—I was honoured to meet a Christian pastor to talk about that country’s serious problem with youth unemployment, which is running at 60%. He was very open about the way in which he was able to establish churches in that country and about the freedom of religion there. That gave me great comfort, but I have been in other countries where I have received less comfort from the reports of the minority groups that I met. Parliamentarians often have privileged access, and it is important that we use it to encourage those who are being persecuted or are under pressure, and to say, “We have not forgotten you. You are remembered in the United Kingdom and its Parliament.”

Some Governments that profess to offer freedom of religion and belief actually undermine it. The Foreign Office and the Department for International Development can advocate on behalf of minorities in relation to the methods used, which are often fairly technical. They include the development of the constitution and how it deals with what is often known as proselytising, or seeks to restrict the right to freedom of speech, which appears to be there but is actually not. Another such measure is refusal of planning permission for places of worship—it should be given, but reasons are found for it not to be, year after year. In the end, groups are forced to register to use temporary accommodation, or are not even able to meet together. Again, the Foreign Office, or DFID if it is working in the country, can say to Governments, “Hang on—you are not abiding by your own laws. You are discriminating against a group by not allowing them to establish a place of worship, even if it is permitted.”

Finally, although we know that Governments have little control over this, we need to look at the role of social media and how it enables the spread of fake news, such as the spreading of lies about people that results, in some countries, in their being lynched or murdered for something that they have not done. We should encourage Governments to take up those cases, to ensure that those who use social media for such terrible purposes are held to account judicially, and that the companies that enable those people are regulated in a way that we have begun to talk about here.

Thank you very much for the opportunity to speak, Mr Walker. I hope that this Freedom of Religious Belief Day will be the chance for people of all faiths—particularly their leaders—and no faith to stand up for all those who are persecuted across the world, and to not make exceptions for those with whom they do not share a faith.