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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:47 pm on 25th October 2018.

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Photo of Fabian Hamilton Fabian Hamilton Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow Minister (Defence) 3:47 pm, 25th October 2018

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. I would like to start by thanking Stewart Malcolm McDonald, because I was going to begin my speech by mentioning the case of the Jews, as he and many others have done. I know that hon. Members wish to hear from the Minister, but I ask them to bear with me as I sum up for the Opposition.

I am reminded of a particular case that is close to my heart; I hope hon. Members will forgive me if they have heard it before. It is the case of Raina Sevilla, a Jewish woman who moved from Switzerland to Paris in 1934 in the belief that France was a safe place for Jews to live. Just six years later, after the fall of Paris to the Nazis, she was asked, along with so many other Jews in Paris, to register and wear the yellow star. Some months later, she was picked up in the middle of the night and taken to the Vel’ d’Hiv, the velodrome in the middle of Paris. In June or July 1942, along with so many others, she was taken from there to Drancy, the makeshift concentration camp on the north-east outskirts of Paris, near the railhead at Bobigny. The next day she was taken to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where she was sent, along with many thousands of other older women and children, to the gas chambers. She was my great-grandmother. That is why this debate matters, and why it means so very much to all of us.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Glasgow South for taking up the case of the Jewish people. I am not a religious man either, but I am Jewish. Every single one of us knows where religious intolerance can end, because we have seen it. History teaches it to us. Every single Member this afternoon has given a brilliant speech telling us why this debate, timed to coincide with the International Freedom of Religion or Belief Day, is so appropriate, so important and so essential to the very essence of our existence as a Parliament in this free country of ours.

I pay tribute to my good friend Jim Shannon—I hope that he does not mind me calling him my good friend. We have worked closely together over many years. He gave his thanks to the Government for their support and for the good work done, and for what is still to be done. I know that we will hear from the Minister shortly about how that will be developed. All Governments in this country, of every party, have supported the right that we value so greatly.

The hon. Gentleman talked about forced organ harvesting in China, as others have done this afternoon, and the Falun Gong, a religious minority in China who are being persecuted in astonishingly horrific ways. There are many parallels with what the Jews have suffered, especially during the second world war. He mentioned Chinese Muslims, who have been in the news recently. I have had emails, as I am sure have many other Members, from constituents who are angry and upset at what they hear in the media. It is good that our free media is able to report that, but it is tragic what they have to report and that this is still going on.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the abductions in Punjab and the Rohingya people in Myanmar, as did other Members. He made some positive suggestions, which I know the Minister will examine in his summing up. He talked about an area that is a concern to me as shadow Minister for the middle east and north Africa—Egypt and the torture, disappearances and executions of Christians. He mentioned his comprehensive five-point plan to help stop religious persecution abroad. I will be interested to hear the Minister’s response.

Jeremy Lefroy is one of my very favourite colleagues; we worked together on the International Development Committee for three years. In his excellent speech, he talked about the importance of freedom of religious belief, but he also said it was vital to stand up for all those abroad who suffer from persecution—that faith communities themselves must stand up against persecution not of their own faith but of other faiths in other countries. That is an essential point for all of us to remember. He talked about the role of the Court of Human Rights, which is fundamental to who we are as a country. I totally agree with that sentiment, and so does my party. Social media is a great invention, but the abuse and misuse of it has to be stopped in some way. I hope that we, not as legislators but as individuals, might have the power to do that.

My colleague and hon. Friend Ms Rimmer spoke about her recent trip to Pakistan and the warm reception she received. I have experienced that myself on visits to Pakistan. She mentioned the persecution of the Falun Gong in China, many of whom I have met over the years. Sadly she is now also familiar with the plight they endure day in, day out. She mentioned the 2016 report on transplant programmes in China, and we thank her for the detail she gave—the 60,000 to 100,000 organ transplants per year. Where are those organs coming from? I am afraid the conclusion that we have to draw is the organ harvesting that is so widely documented and evidenced now. It is the tip of an iceberg, as she said. She told us more about Pakistan and the ongoing persecution of Ahmadiyya Muslims, and I will come to that in a minute.

Kevin Foster made an excellent speech. He said that the right to believe in “your own faith, which is not necessarily my faith” is a fundamental one, and that he welcomed this debate each year. He spoke of how cracking down on religious belief always leads to cracking down on every other freedom. He referred also to North Korea and the shocking abuses there. It is the most repressive country in the world and is completely opposed to any freedom of religion, except the one religion that matters—the ability to worship the leader. There are still, in spite of all that, so many Christians still alive and active, and it is a tribute to human nature and the extraordinary conviction of people of faith and of no faith that those Christians, alone and abused and banned from practising their faith, can practice it in the holes in the grounds or the toilets, or wherever it may be in those forced labour camps. Let us hope that we see an end to those, sooner rather than later.

We heard from my hon. Friend Siobhain McDonagh. I pay tribute to the work she has done, year in year out, to draw attention to the plight of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community in this and other countries around the world. She detailed the worldwide persecution of that community in her tour d’horizon of all the countries in the world where they are persecuted for their faith. She mentioned the tragic murder of the shopkeeper Asad Shah in Glasgow, as did the hon. Member for Glasgow South, who knew that gentleman. It was absolutely shocking. Listening to my hon. Friend, I was reminded of what the Nazis did to the Jews in Germany. The way they are being treated is so very similar. We have to stand up for them and that is up to all of us. My hon. Friend mentioned the scourge of extremism being a stain on our reputation in our country, a country renowned throughout the world for its religious tolerance. It is our duty as Members of Parliament to stand up against it.

I give huge praise to my friend, Fiona Bruce. We also served together on the International Development Committee for three years. As well as enjoying our time together, I learned a lot from her. We travelled across many countries where we saw the excellent work of the Department for International Development. She took us around the world in great detail. I will not reiterate that detail, because we want to hear from the Minister. She mentioned shocking cases in Pakistan, including that of Sharjeel and the positive response to the international condemnation, which means that this House can do something to draw attention to such horrors and persecution.

The hon. Lady also talked—this is very relevant—of the £500 million of taxpayers’ money that this country spends on aid in Pakistan, none of which is spent on promoting religious tolerance and education. She also mentioned Nepal—I have visited that country many times—and its new penal code. Let us hope that it sees sense and responds to international pressure to rescind that article of the penal code and to change its constitution. I will be interested to hear the Minister’s comments on that.

The hon. Lady mentioned the Falun Gong. She also talked about Russia, which we have not debated very much so far this afternoon, and the report of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission. It is an excellent organisation—here is a Labour shadow spokesperson talking about a Conservative body, but any organisation or political body that draws attention to this kind of persecution should be praised by all of us, and I praise the hon. Lady for that work. She talked about what Boko Haram is doing in Nigeria, and the kidnapped girls. I thank her for reminding us that there is one child left—the one Christian girl. We need to campaign for her release too.

Stephen Kerr spoke of freedom of religion as a fundamental human right and noted that, for the seventh year in a row, we have seen an increase in governmental restrictions on religious freedom. He talked about Afghanistan and Somalia, which we have not heard very much about.

John Howell has always contributed to these debates and has always had much to say in his area of expertise, which is Nigeria. We all benefit from that and I am grateful to learn more about Nigeria, especially as we know about the 50:50 split between Muslims and Christians. Generally, in spite of all the turmoil, including the vastly increasing population and the problems they face, there is actually a lot of good work going on in Nigeria. It is important that we remember that many nations that face problems of religious tolerance and freedom are doing their very best against such a backdrop.

The hon. Member for Henley used one word that is important throughout this whole debate: respect. It is a word that we do not hear too often these days. We need to show more respect, not just for one another in this place, but for those who have a different way of life and a different approach to life—a completely different faith from that which we may or may not have—and emphasise their right to live by that faith, underpinned by the relevant articles.

Let me say just a few words about human rights. The hon. Member for Stirling mentioned article 18 of the universal declaration of human rights, which I will not go through again. There is also article 18 of the international covenant on civil and political rights, which is very similar, and article 9 of the European convention on human rights, which clearly says much the same as well. We have many of these articles worldwide that confirm the right to religious freedom, yet we see it being abused so much all over the world.

I will not repeat what hon. Members have already said about different countries around the world. We should look to ourselves as well. According to data released by the Community Security Trust, a Jewish organisation in the United Kingdom, the number of antisemitic incidents in the UK rose by more than a third to record levels in 2016, and it has risen again since then. I know that the Government will be doing all they can to stop that, but according to the Metropolitan police here in London, the number of hate crimes against Muslims has increased from 343 incidents in 2013 to 1,260 in 2016. The Casey review highlighted just three years ago that at least 55% of the general public believe there is a fundamental clash between Islam and British society values. We all need to work to change that. The Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Lord Ahmad, said in 2017:

“The persecution of individuals based on their religion or belief remains of profound concern to the United Kingdom. The freedom to practise, change or share one’s faith or belief without discrimination or violent opposition is a fundamental human right, and the UK Government are committed to defending this human right and promoting respect and tolerance between religious communities.”—[Official Report, 17 July 2017;
Vol. 627, c. 5P.]