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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:23 pm on 25th October 2018.

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Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster Conservative, Torbay 2:23 pm, 25th October 2018

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. It is a pleasure to follow Ms Rimmer. I associate myself with her comments.

It is always a pleasure to speak in a debate secured by Jim Shannon, who is a doughty champion of the rights of people to express their religious belief and to find and approach God in their own way. As my hon. Friend Jeremy Lefroy noted, this debate is not about the freedom to express the belief that I share with someone, but the freedom to express the belief that one has. The hon. Member for Strangford always makes the point that it is also about the freedom to express the belief in no religious faith, to not believe in God, to be an atheist, and to not be compelled to believe in something. For me, that is the core of this debate.

I am pleased to say that my church is quite active in the work of Open Doors. We publish the world watch list there each year, which brings home to those coming through the doors of St Matthias in Torquay—a Victorian church that has stood for about 150 years—that there are still many countries around the world where a church cannot stand so openly and its worshipers cannot just walk in. For many people, that simple act of wanting to go to church on a Sunday and praise their Lord could lead to them being sacked from their job, imprisoned, persecuted and, in some cases, killed. The chance to reflect on that in this Chamber is always welcome.

It is appropriate for me to reflect on this issue, which was recently brought home to me when I met two missionaries in my constituency who work in a part of the world where there is significant state repression. I have been asked not to give any more details than that. They told me about their experience of working in those areas—taking the faith out in a place where the Government do not have a particular view about the Christian faith as such, but believe that one’s faith should be in the Government itself, and where they want to crack down on any sign that people have their own thought processes or think for themselves.

In all too many cases, cracking down on people’s freedom of religion goes hand in glove with cracking down on every other right that they have. The countries that are likely to abuse religious rights and freedom of belief are exactly the same countries that crack down on journalists who write unhelpful articles or people who just believe that they should have a different say—for example, by being able to vote freely.

Every year we reflect, sadly, on the fact that North Korea tops Open Doors’ world watch list for persecution of Christians—being candid, it would top the list for the persecution by the state of any religious faith, except that which says that the leader of that country is some sort of divine being. While the North Korean regime may wish to celebrate its 70th year, there is nothing for its people to celebrate about the existence of that state for the last 70 years. The country is clearly in a desperate state and many people are starving.

Even among all that, there are still an estimated 200,000 to 400,000 Christians in the country. Even with everything they see around them, they hold on to that shining faith, which many of us share. However, it is estimated that between 50,000 and 70,000 people—the margins have to be wide, because it is incredibly hard to get accurate statistics or conduct work to establish what is going on in that country—might be in labour camps, in appalling conditions reminiscent of many of the concentration camps we saw in Europe back in the 1940s, when another tyrannical regime sought to put itself in the place of God.

While that may sound depressing, it is also quite inspiring for Christians in the west when we hear the story, for example, on the Open Doors website of Hea Woo, who planted a church in a North Korean labour camp—literally planted a church there for fellow Christians to come together in the name of God. While they were meeting in a toilet in a North Korean labour camp, rather than one of the great abbeys, such as the one we have opposite this place, or the churches that many of us frequent at home, there is still a church, and God and the Holy Spirit would have been there with them when they came together in Christ’s name. It is an inspiring picture that shows how the power of faith breaks through. Even in the worst, most horrible and appalling conditions, people still see the Christian faith as their source of light and inspiration. The story talks about still thanking God for the grace that they receive. For me, that is what was so inspiring about what it means to those people.

When I have come to these debates in previous years, we have inevitably ended up looking towards the middle east and the appalling behaviour of Daesh, which saw Christian communities that had existed for thousands of years and are named in the Bible wiped out in a few weeks. Thankfully, that group is being pushed back and is in retreat, but that should not hide the fact that appalling repression continues. In some cases, the people who are seeking to liberate areas from Daesh still hold the view that only one faith can be tolerated in their communities.

The issues in Turkey have already been touched on. Many of us were hopeful when we started to see signs of a new regime in Saudi Arabia, which removed the ridiculous ban on women driving and started to make noises about letting them in cinemas. The last couple of weeks and what happened in that country’s Turkish consulate will perhaps have given people pause for thought, however, about where it is going. No matter what trade or other interests we have, we should not be afraid to challenge certain countries. All Christians want to do is to proclaim God and to proclaim their faith. They do not want to force someone else to share their faith; they just want to freely share theirs, as people can in this country.

We should look not just at the middle east, but at sub-Saharan Africa and at the situation in Nigeria in particular. Nigeria is a melting pot of many cultures and faiths. It has the opportunity and the resources to be a wonderful place that provides a high standard of living for its people, but all too often those resources are caught up in conflict or destroyed, particularly by Boko Haram’s actions in the north. That group has sought not only to suppress people’s religious freedoms, but to take away rights to education. It particularly does not want women and girls to be educated and it enforces those views and beliefs.

It will be interesting to hear the Minister’s thoughts, but the next place where we may need to think carefully about how we continue to promote peace, stability and security, and how we ensure that some of those basic rights are guaranteed, might be in areas where the problem is not the state, but corrupt local forces on the ground or a non-state actor looking to impose its own regime and beliefs. We will need to think about how we continue to respond to that growing threat, particularly in parts of sub-Saharan Africa, as the focus of certain extremist groups moves away from the middle east, from Syria and Iraq, to that troubled part of the world. We have seen the situation in Libya, where not only can faith not be freely practised, but where there has been a return of the type of scenes involving slavery that we hoped had disappeared in Wilberforce’s era, but which are sadly being revealed in our 21st-century world.

It is likely that we will be here again next year, and hopefully we will be able to reflect on some progress. It is easy to get quite depressed sometimes about where certain parts of the world are going, but it is worth remembering that religious repression was common 30 years ago across swathes of eastern Europe, including in parts of what is now the Federal Republic of Germany. Whole generations of people in Europe had to live under oppression.

I heard the points that my hon. Friends the Members for Henley (John Howell) and for Stafford made about the European convention on human rights, but there is a debate to be had about how it can become a more effective thing to be signed, because there can be very few people living in eastern Ukraine who feel that their rights are being well protected by having Russia as a signatory to that accord.