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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:24 pm on 25th October 2018.

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Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley 3:24 pm, 25th October 2018

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. I know that Jim Shannon, whom I warmly congratulate on securing this debate, has a debate coming up on 27 November on the subject of armed violence against farming communities in Nigeria, most of whom are Christian. I will use the situation in Nigeria as an example of how we might approach the issue of religious freedom. Although this does not fall under my remit as the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to Nigeria, I do know the country and feel that I can comment in that context.

The federal and state Governments in Nigeria are prevented from adopting a state religion or discriminating in any way on religious grounds. The split between Christians and Muslims is almost exactly 50/50—there is about a 1% difference between the two. Although some 12 states follow sharia law, they do so for Muslim-to-Muslim relations, and it would be wrong to characterise an area in Nigeria as either Christian or Muslim. For example, although significant numbers of Christians live in the north, which is traditionally thought of as a Muslim area, there is no evidence of sharia courts being used for Christian activities unless they particularly want to raise a concern about a Muslim activity. Sharia law is simply for Muslim-to-Muslim activities.

Both Muslim and Christian groups in Nigeria have complained about the Government’s handling of disputes, particularly in the central band across the middle of the country where there are long-standing disputes between Christian farmers and Muslim herders involving rival claims and complaints that security forces did not intervene when farming villages were attacked by herdsmen. It is interesting to note that when farming villages were attacked by herdsmen, there was uproar in Abuja. The President was summoned to Parliament, as were service chiefs and security advisers, and they were subjected to intense pressure from parliamentarians. Equally, however, the media regularly report claims by Christians that northern leaders, backed by the Government, are trying to Islamise the whole of the country. Of course, the presence of Boko Haram is crucial to that.

Boko Haram is a terrorist organisation. It is not one that the Government can control. Although, with the help of British service personnel who are there as advisers, the Nigerian Government are trying to attack Boko Haram, Boko Haram will not be defeated by military means alone. It will be defeated by the country sharing in the wealth creation that is going on in Nigeria and by making sure it is shared at an individual level, so that people are offered something that Boko Haram cannot offer. There are already signs of success in that.

There have also been reports that Christian groups in northern states are not given building permits—I think that was raised earlier. So we have a situation where Christian communities decide they are simply going to build the churches that they want to and will wait until the Government come and bulldoze them, which they do from time to time. It has happened in various states. However, I also came across an example of a mosque in a similar situation. It was threatened with demolition because it did not have the right planning permit. This issue goes across religions, but we rarely hear about it. Unfortunately, it appears the demolition of the mosque was stopped before it went ahead, and no one quite knows why.

It is worth noting that Muslims, too, complain of a lack of freedom of religion more generally. In one case, a Muslim was denied the chance to be called to the Nigerian Bar simply because she wore a hijab. Christians also complain that it is difficult for them to be admitted into schools, especially to study medicine and engineering, and in many states it is also difficult for them to take courses in Christianity.

There are optimistic signs, however. Some good work is being done by religious leaders on both sides of the argument, including efforts to bring peace to the areas in question. Those were started as a result of the attacks between farmers and herdsmen, particularly after 300 farmers were killed by raiding herdsmen. The violence is related to religious differences, but we should not pretend that all the violence in Nigeria is the result simply of religious differences. Economic and social factors are involved as well.