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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:42 pm on 25th October 2018.

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Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton 2:42 pm, 25th October 2018

It is a privilege to speak in this debate to mark this year’s International Freedom of Religion or Belief Day. I thank Jim Shannon for securing it, for his work on this issue and for the tour de force that was his speech. I will also say how much I respect every speech that has been made in the Chamber today; I agree with everything that has been said.

Let me start with some positive news. Earlier this week, Members may have heard news of a 13-year-old boy in Pakistan called Sharjeel, who was the only Christian in his class, all the other pupils being Muslim. Last week he turned off a water tap at school, for which he was beaten and expelled, on the grounds that he had polluted the water supply. Colleagues may recall the case of Asia Bibi, the wife and mother who is still in detention, some nine years on, for drinking water from a communal tap, for which she was accused of polluting the water supply.

Sharjeel’s mother went to the school to object to his treatment. She was told that he was an infidel who was only fit for cleaning latrines. How, therefore, can I say that I have some positive news? Following the concerns raised in the past few days by religious freedom activists, in Pakistan and abroad, with the authorities in Pakistan, there has been a swift response, which is very different from what happened in Asia Bibi’s case, which I hope will help that lady. In Sharjeel’s case, direct action has been taken by the Human Rights Minister in Pakistan, Dr Shireen Mazari—the head of the school has been suspended and an inquiry has been launched by the district education office.

That shows that when we raise individual cases of concern, we can make a difference. Of course, we need to do more. I therefore ask the Minister to keep a watchful eye on Sharjeel’s case and to raise it as soon as he can with his counterparts in Pakistan. At the same time, may I also draw his attention to the fact that around half a billion pounds of UK aid is spent every year in Pakistan? However, there is little evidence that the aid money is being used either to prioritise freedom of religion or belief in that country or to help persecuted minorities. In Pakistan, 5% of minorities should be given proper jobs but, due to a lack of education, many members of minority groups do not qualify.

I pay tribute to the hon. Members for Strangford and for St Helens South and Whiston (Ms Rimmer) for the work they have done, because they have not just been talking about the issue, as I am today; they actually went to Pakistan and brought back their concerns, as did Lord Alton, who has told me about the camps that many of these people are living in, because they could not support themselves. The camps lack even the most basic facilities—no running water, electricity or latrines. However, I understand from Lord Alton that no DFID staff member has ever visited the camps. May I ask the Minister to rectify that omission, in a country that receives so much UK aid?