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

Yes. There are many other aspects of the report that time precludes me from going into, but there are indeed many geographical areas where persecution is taking place.

I would be grateful if the Minister agreed to meet my co-commissioners and me to discuss our report. We received some evidence in person from some important witnesses, including Marina Litvinenko—her husband, as Members will remember, was assassinated in London over a decade ago—and Bill Browder, whose lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, died in prison in Russia, as a result of which Mr Browder has campaigned internationally for justice and human rights in Russia. We also received evidence via Skype from Garry Kasparov, the world chess champion, who was driven into exile because he could not freely live his life according to his beliefs in Russia.

I will now turn to Nigeria—I know that my hon. Friend John Howell wants to speak about that country, so I will shorten my comments a little. A serious issue is occurring in Nigeria. I will refer first to my letter of 9 October to the Minister for Africa, my hon. Friend Harriett Baldwin, regarding the case of Leah Sharibu, one of 110 girls abducted by Boko Haram from their school in Dapchi. The other girls were all released some six months ago following negotiations, but Leah—the only Christian among them—remains in captivity because she refuses to convert in exchange for her freedom. She has now spent more than 200 days in captivity. Will the Minister speak with his ministerial counterpart, and perhaps respond to my question in that letter about what steps the UK Government can take to assist the Nigerian authorities in ensuring Leah’s swift and safe return?

I draw the Minister’s attention to concerns that nothing less than genocide is unfolding in Nigeria, with inadequate international attention paid to it. In recent years there has been an escalation in attacks on communities in several states by well-armed Fulani herdsmen. Local observers describe those attacks as a campaign of ethno-religious cleansing. Reports from Christian Solidarity Worldwide—an organisation whose work globally, and in this case in Nigeria, I also pay tribute to—say that

“the local chapter of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) recently revealed that herders have destroyed over 500 churches in Benue state alone since 2011.”

When I visited Nigeria over two years ago with the International Development Committee, my colleagues and I attended a roundtable of civil society representatives. One of those representatives was a senior member of the Christian Association of Nigeria, who highlighted concerns about the issue, saying that ethno-religious cleansing was happening. Sadly, insufficient notice of his concerns was taken by DFID representatives in Nigeria at the time. Two years later, the matter has significantly worsened. I implore the Minister to look into the situation. It has been exacerbated by inadequate Nigerian Government action, which CSW says has “entrenched impunity”.

The people being persecuted by those herdsmen need Government support, as the herdsmen are so brutal that individual communities are defenceless against them. Only yesterday evening, at a meeting of Nigerians, I spoke with someone who had lived in Nigeria until very recently. He told me that those herder militias are so brutal that even Boko Haram leaves them alone. They are armed with sophisticated weaponry, including AK47s, in some cases chemicals, and even rocket launchers. Those militias are believed to have murdered more people in 2015, 2016 and 2017 than Boko Haram, destroying, overrunning and seizing property and land, and displacing tens of thousands. It is not sufficient to say that they are simply traveller communities involved in farmer-herder clashes, attacking indiscriminately. That is what I heard when I was there.

Attacks on Christian communities by these herdsmen are becoming far too common. CSW reports that in the first quarter of 2018 they have perpetrated more than 100 attacks on communities in central Nigeria, claiming more than 1,000 lives. To give one example, in August a Nigerian pastor, Adamu Wurim Gyang, his three children and his wife were burnt alive when their house was set on fire in Abonong village. A clergyman, Ezekiel Dachomo, appealed in a video in September for assistance from the US, UK parliamentarians and the UN, saying:

“Please stand for us. We are dying…please allow us to survive. We have nobody. Only God in heaven can stand for us. Please, I am begging you. United Nations, your silence is getting worse…Please, please, I’m begging you stand for the helpless.”

The international community must hear these cries. Those of us who remember the barbaric genocide in Rwanda are reflecting now that history could be repeating itself. Will the Minister work with the UN to urge the Nigerian Government to develop effective solutions to bring an end to this atrocious violence?

Before I turn to my final country, I urge colleagues, in addition to commemorating International Freedom of Religion or Belief Day today, to support Red Wednesday on 28 November. I ask them to join calls for the Speaker to permit the buildings of Parliament—the Commons and the Lords—to be lit up red to highlight the concerns we have about these freedoms. I also ask them to urge local public buildings in their communities to do the same. A third day that I would like to draw colleagues’ attention to is specifically about victims of genocide. I tabled an early-day motion in July asking for support for an international day commemorating victims and survivors of religious persecution. If colleagues would be good enough to sign that EDM, we can perhaps bring the need to have a particular focus on victims and survivors much more into the international arena than we have to date.

I will move on to my final country, which is, as it was when we were last in this Chamber debating this issue, the UK. I rejoice that here in the UK we enjoy a significant heritage of prizing and protecting freedom of expression, freedom of thought, freedom of religion and freedom of conscience. We do not suffer persecution of the type we have heard about in many countries. However, I have become increasingly concerned in recent years about whether these freedoms are being adequately protected in practice in our country.

I welcome the recent Supreme Court judgment regarding Ashers Baking Company, where the Court ruled that the owners should not be compelled to promote a message that clashes with their own sincerely held biblical beliefs. The ruling has implications not simply for Christians or for religious people; it is an important safeguard for us all, because it upholds an important principle of freedom of expression—namely, that no one should be compelled to express a belief that they do not hold, still less a message with which they strongly disagree.

None the less, I want to sound two notes of caution in closing. First, although I am pleased by the Supreme Court judgment, I am concerned that the case progressed to anything like the extent it did through our courts. I am all the more concerned because its progress was reportedly funded at enormous public expense—to the tune of around a quarter of a million pounds—by the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland, and that is not to mention the fees of the McArthur family. Should the issue not have been sensibly resolved more quickly, and certainly without the trauma that the brave McArthur family must have endured to make the public stand they did? I pay tribute to them, as I do to the Christian Institute, which supported them. Why did a public body support the action? Why did the courts not uphold this important freedom much earlier in the process? As one part of the solution, I suggest that we need to see a redoubling of efforts to promote religious literacy in the judicial system.

Secondly, while underlining my welcome of the recent judgment and the vindication of the McArthur family, it is important to recognise that that does not negate the challenges faced by many other Christians in the UK on account of their Christian faith. I hope that the judgment is a turning point in securing a better, practical settlement in the protection in everyday life of religious freedom generally, not only for Christians, but for those with other beliefs. I hope that the judgment will encourage those who have sincere beliefs to speak out about them and not to feel that they are subject to what has been called “the chilling effect”, inhibiting them from doing so. I hope that we will see further evidence in coming months that judicially, politically and culturally our commitment to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, as well as to freedom of expression, is deep and real here in the UK, even where that freedom may be politically or culturally inconvenient. In terms of religious freedom, we should stand as an exemplar beacon of hope to others who suffer far more gravely around the world.