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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:06 pm on 25th October 2018.

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Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative, Stirling 3:06 pm, 25th October 2018

It is a great pleasure to participate in this debate and to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. Equally, it is an enormous honour for me to follow my hon. Friend Fiona Bruce, who in so many ways stands as a beacon for all of us, particularly those of us who recently became Members, who share her deep convictions and principles. I also congratulate my hon. Friend Jim Shannon—he is my friend—on securing this debate. He is another shining beacon, an example and a city set on a hill in this regard and many others.

With this debate, we are talking about something that is fundamental to civilisation: freedom of religion or belief. It is a fundamental freedom. It is in so many ways the foundation freedom. I feel passionately about the subject because I am a member of a religious minority—the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—that has a long history of persecution and misrepresentation. Happily, those dark days are largely behind us, but the lessons learned are deeply ingrained and any suggestion of intolerance or persecution of any minority religious group or minority group of any kind is anathema to me, as I am sure it is to other hon. and right hon. Members.

The first President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Joseph Smith, declared the human right to exercise

“that free independence of mind which heaven has so graciously bestowed upon the human family is one of its choicest gifts”.

On another occasion, he said:

“Meddle not with any man for his religion: all governments ought to permit every man to enjoy his religion unmolested. No man is authorised to take away life in consequence of difference of religion, which all laws and governments ought to tolerate and protect, right or wrong.”

Freedom of religion or belief is a foundation human right as described in the universal declaration on human rights, which this coming December will be 70 years old. Article 18 reads:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion;
this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

It is my sincere belief that it is a fundamental responsibility of Government to frame such laws as are necessary to secure for each individual citizen the free exercise of conscience and to hold these laws inviolate. To violate that right is to suppress the freedom of the human soul, and no Government can long exist in peace, nor can any society prosper, while citizens are denied such fundamental freedoms.

Earlier this year, the Pew Research Centre published its ninth annual study of global restrictions on religion. It is a comprehensive examination of freedom of religion or belief in 198 countries, and it showed that for the second year in a row there has been an increase in the overall level of restrictions imposed on freedom of religion or belief by Governments. The report states that the share of countries with high or very high levels of Government restrictions—that is, laws, policies and actions by officials that restrict religious beliefs and practices—rose from 25% to 28%. That is the highest percentage of high or very high levels of Government restrictions since 2013, and falls just below the 10-year peak of 29% in 2012.

Open Doors summarises the global trends of people being persecuted for their Christian faith. More than 200 million believers in 50 countries have experienced high levels of persecution because of their faith, and more than 3,000 Christians have been killed for their faith in the reporting period for 2018—more than twice as many in any previous reporting period. Each of Open Doors’ top 11 world watch list countries are now classified as places of extreme persecution—more countries than ever before in the 26 years of the world watch list.

Open Doors’ report highlights the deteriorating situations in Libya, Eritrea, India and Egypt. Countries where there is extreme persecution are North Korea, Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan, Pakistan, Eritrea, Libya, Iraq and Yemen, many of which have been mentioned. For the 17th consecutive year, North Korea has been named the most dangerous place in the world to be a Christian, and sadly the situation in Afghanistan and Somalia is in many ways just as critical.

Sam Brownback, the recently appointed US ambassador- at-large for international religious freedom, has singled out the situation in China, which he describes as worsening for people of faith. The situation in China has been well documented, especially in the last few days, as reports of large-scale camps—euphemistically described as re-education centres or schools—have reached the west. As many as 1 million Muslims have been locked up in such camps without trial. In western China, the Uyghurs number some 12 million souls. They are Muslim people who live with the constant threat of arrest and censure by the Communist authorities. BBC journalist John Sudworth, whom I commend for his recent reports, states:

“Harsh new legal penalties have been introduced to curtail Islamic identity and practice—banning, among other things, long beards and headscarves, the religious instruction of children, and even Islamic-sounding names.”

Christian churches have long been the object of official Chinese attention. To register as a state-sanctioned Christian organisation, religious leaders must receive training to adapt doctrine to Government and Communist party thinking. Recent repression efforts target both house and state-sanctioned churches through the harassment and detention of Christian believers, blocking entry to sites of worship, interrupting gatherings, dismantling crosses, demolishing churches and disbanding congregations. Recently, the Chinese authorities have begun to insist on the installation of monitoring equipment in churches in Beijing.

Last month’s provisional deal between the Vatican and the Chinese Government is regarded as a key moment in decades of struggle over the Catholic Church’s right to appoint bishops in China. Pope Francis recently recognised the legitimacy of seven bishops approved and appointed by the Chinese Government. Yet a fundamental characteristic of freedom of religion is the right to Church autonomy to determine its own theology and doctrine, to establish membership standards and to own and manage sacred properties, and the right of its members to associate freely without unwarranted governmental or other official interference.

The position of Falun Gong practitioners, which has been mentioned, and Tibetan Muslims is also well documented, with both subjected to some of the worst extremes of Chinese oppression. Our view of China must be tempered by what we know about those fundamental abuses of human rights, and when we embrace China or seem to celebrate its contribution to the world, we must never forget or leave behind the many millions of people of faith who are persecuted and prosecuted by the Chinese authorities. What representations have been made recently by Her Majesty’s Government to China about the treatment of religious minorities?