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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:02 pm on 25th October 2018.

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Photo of Mark Field Mark Field Minister of State 4:02 pm, 25th October 2018

I appreciate that.

Earlier in the year, Lord Ahmad met a range of religious leaders in Israel to discuss their concerns. He also met Yazidi and Christian leaders in Iraq to hear about their experiences and to reiterate the UK’s commitment to freedom of religion or belief across Iraq.

A number of hon. Member raised the especially distressing case of Asia Bibi. I assure hon. Members that we have been following the case very closely. I have made plain our views, and will continue to do so as a matter of principle, about the death penalty, let alone for that particular charge, and about the injustices that minorities in Pakistan face. I have made a number of representations to Pakistani authorities at all levels. We are at a highly sensitive moment in that very distressing case, so I am not able explain publicly what we and international partners are saying privately to the Pakistani authorities.

There are lots of issues to cover, so hon. Members will have to forgive me if there are things that I am unable to cover. If time runs away from me, I will catch up with hon. Members subsequently in writing. The hon. Member for Strangford raised a number of issues that I hope I have already covered. On DFID, we want to work with Lord Ahmad on a cross-governmental basis. I will say a bit more about that later.

I think I have covered the points that my hon. Friend Jeremy Lefroy raised. I confess that I could not agree more with what he said; it was very refreshing. It makes life easier for us if we can say, “This is not special pleading because there are Christian groups here. The Christian groups want to see the rights of all religious groups upheld. This is a human rights issue first and foremost.” That makes our argument so much more powerful. I echo my hon. Friend’s very valuable point.

Ms Rimmer touched on a number of very important issues. The issue of organ harvesting is almost unbelievable. She will understand that, although I am not questioning the reports in any way, we need to get to the bottom of exactly what has happened. She will be aware that, in the past, organs have been harvested from people who have been executed. It is a grisly situation. We remain deeply concerned about the persecution of Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Falun Gong practitioners and others in China simply because of their religious belief. We believe that societies that aim to guarantee freedom of religion are more stable, prosperous and resilient to violent extremism. The very wise words of my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford on this matter were right. What have they got to fear? China is moving ahead in the world, including in terms of prosperity. The hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston will appreciate why arguments about culture in particular have to be made privately, but please be assured that we do make our concerns felt.

It was interesting that the hon. Lady talked about Kachin and Shan states in Burma, rather than about the Rohingya situation, which has been discussed and on which a huge amount of work is being done in the international community. We are very concerned about the ongoing violence and we do not take the view that that part of Burma is stable and secure. There are human rights concerns, particularly relating to Christians, about those areas, which are run by both the Burmese army and armed ethnic groups. We raised concerns about the treatment of ethnic minorities in Burma, including in Kachin and Shan, in the Human Rights Council in September 2017. The former Foreign Secretary raised the matter during his March 2018 visit to Burma, and the new Foreign Secretary went to Burma and met Aung San Suu Kyi as recently as September this year. I know that all hon. Members will continue to press the Government of Burma on the crucial need for interfaith dialogue and religious tolerance.

The hon. Lady and Siobhain McDonagh touched on the reports that Pakistani refugees are rounded up and placed in detention centres in Thailand when they are assessed to be of the Ahmadi religion. We are following the recent deterioration in Thailand and will continue to do so. It is particularly sad, because there has been progress in many of these areas in that country in recent years. We understand that there are approximately 100 people, mainly from Pakistan, whom the Thai authorities consider to be illegal immigrants, and this follows arrests of Cambodian and Vietnamese nationals at the end of August. We understand that about 200 people claim refugee and asylum status and are in immigration detention. Some of them are already registered under the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. I am in touch with David Miliband on that matter.

We believe that the recent orders are not aimed at any specific group but apply to anyone the Thai authorities deem to be an illegal visa overstayer, as part of the general tightening of immigration enforcement. In September, a senior official from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office raised our concerns about the treatment of those in immigration detention with the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs. We will continue to work with the Thai authorities to improve detention conditions. The hon. Members for St Helens South and Whiston and for Mitcham and Morden will have to forgive me for not saying any more now. If we have more to pass on, we will try to do so in writing, but let us make sure we stay in touch on this issue.

The hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden has been a great advocate for the Ahmadis, and we have discussed the matter previously in the House. As she is aware, Lord Ahmad is of that religion, and she can be assured that he will raise the issue across the globe at every appropriate opportunity.

My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton raised a number of issues. I raised concerns about freedom of religious belief with Nepal’s Prime Minister Oli when I met him on 6 May during my visit to Kathmandu. I sought the same sort of assurances that my hon. Friend sought from me on precisely how the penal code was to be enforced, and we made it very clear that we would be very reluctant to see it being used to restrict full freedom of religious practice, especially for religious minorities.

In addition, our embassy in Nepal—we have a tremendous ambassador there in Richard Morris—regularly discusses human rights issues including freedom of religious belief with the Government of Nepal. Nepal does not receive a huge amount of DFID money, which is one of our concerns. We feel that it would be appropriate to have a number of other DFID programmes in Nepal—we have a tremendous historical connection, particularly between the Gurkhas and the Ministry of Defence—but we undertake significant work in that regard.

We have been closely monitoring the legal provision on freedom of religious belief included in the reforms to the national penal code in Nepal. The embassy has heard the concerns of the interfaith council—in fact, I heard them myself at a meeting in early May—about the lack of provision for registering religious organisations and the problems that they face in trying to conduct their day-to-day activities as non-governmental organisations, so we are keeping that under a fairly constant review.

My hon. Friend the Member for Henley is a great advocate for Nigeria and has done a tremendous job as a trade envoy there—I know how much work goes into that. I know there is to be a full debate on the situation in Nigeria, for which we will have more evidence, and I suspect it will be either for me or for the Minister for Africa, my hon. Friend Harriett Baldwin, to respond to that debate. For now, let me say that the Prime Minister raised the issue with President Buhari during her visit to Nigeria in the summer, and emphasised the need to tackle the crisis through mediation and conciliation—the general community conflict advice. With the wisdom that comes from knowing more about that country, my hon. Friend the Member for Henley was absolutely right to identify that the situation is more than a simple religious issue. It is a little more complicated it might appear, although there are clear religious elements. In her representations, the Prime Minister was clear that the violence must stop while work is done to meet the needs of all affected communities. The Foreign Secretary raised the subject when he wrote to his counterpart in August, and the British high commissioner in Abuja has raised the issue with the Nigerian vice-president, with President Buhari’s chief of staff, and with a number of other governors of affected states.

I thank my hon. Friend Stephen Kerr. He spoke about a number of issues, some of which I have touched on, namely the concerns about DFID funding and the Yazidis in Iraq.

I know we are running out of time, so I will finish by stressing that this is not just an issue for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. One of the most important things I do in much of my work on matters ranging from climate change to international energy policy or cyber-security, is recognise that one of the great strengths of our sometimes much-maligned system of government—we are perhaps a little too self-deprecating about it—is the international reach of our Foreign and Commonwealth Office through the number of posts that it has across the world. We feel that it is important to take the UK’s work on religious freedom forward—it is very much a “One HMG” effort, as we put it. For example, the Department for International Development has increased its own engagement on the issue, which I think is very important, although it is a probably a step too far at the moment for development aid to be contingent on money coming through for that sort of work, as one or two of my hon. Friends were suggesting.

I am always struck by the fact DFID money goes to help some of the most vulnerable people. For example, we have had strong difficulties with Cambodia. We have tried to engage, but I think that, for example, paring back our funding for demining on the basis that we had disagreements about press freedom in Cambodia would have been the wrong step to take. By staying committed to a range of development and aid work, we can at least keep some sort of dialogue going, even if we might disapprove of that Government’s actions. That begins to build a degree of trust, and we can start moving in the right direction in other areas.

Although I understand the points rightly made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford, ending that assistance would be a retrograde step. If we get the development issues right and recognise that development is an integral part of a state’s recovery—that notion applies to Pakistan in particular, which is the single biggest recipient of DFID funds—we can hope that having a piece of the action in that respect buys us a place at the table to continue to make plain representations and achieve movement in the right direction. We should not hold out huge hopes in all individual cases, but I will take on board the important concerns expressed my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton and make sure that they are passed back to Islamabad.