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Freedom of Religion or Belief — [Ms Karen Buck in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 1:30 pm on 12th March 2020.

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Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 1:30 pm, 12th March 2020

I am also very happy to do that. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. We will make sure that report is available to colleagues if they have not seen it.

I hope to travel again to Pakistan in April to discuss our report with colleagues there, so we can see how we can work together to protect minorities in Pakistan. It would be very much appreciated if the Minister could support that trip and set an example by implementing the recommendations for the British Government that are set out in the report that the hon. Gentleman just referred to.

Before I finish on Pakistan, one group I particularly want to mention is the Ahmadiyya Muslim community. There is a group from Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland who invite me to their event in Omagh every year. I was there a short time ago and I was there a few years ago as well. I am very pleased to be invited, and I am very pleased to support them. They have freedom of religion or belief in Ireland, both north and south, but they are a persecuted Muslim group. It is the only religious community to be explicitly targeted by Pakistan’s laws on grounds of faith. Perpetrators are given free rein to attack innocent Ahmadis in the knowledge that they will never face prosecution for their actions. Hundreds of Ahmadis have been murdered and the targeted killing of Ahmadis continues with impunity. Ahmadis cannot call themselves Muslims and are denied the right to vote as Muslims. Ahmadis are openly declared as “deserving to be killed”—I will not try to wrap my Ulster Scots accent around the original words—in the Pakistani media and by religious clerics, with the state unable to stand up for Ahmadis and against the extremists.

Another community whose plight I want to highlight and who face comparable persecution are the Baha’i community of Iran. I speak about them all the time, as many in this House do. Since the 1979 Islamic revolution, the Government of Iran have persecuted Iranian Baha’is, who comprise the country’s largest non-Muslim religious minority, with more than 300,000 members, as a systematic policy of the state. Since Dr Hassan Rouhani assumed the presidency in August 2018, more than 283 Baha’is have been arrested, thousands have been blocked from access to higher education, and there have been at least 645 acts of economic oppression. In addition, more than 26,000 pieces of anti-Baha’i propaganda have been disseminated in the Iranian media.

In an even more alarming development, in the early months of 2020 the Iranian Government have moved to digitise national identity cards. The new identity system restricts applicants to select only one of four religions, according to the 1979 constitution—Islam, Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism. Those belonging to other faiths are denied the ID cards. Why should that be? They are therefore deprived of the most basic civil services, such as applying for a loan or buying property, or just having a job or an education.

I have spoken a lot about different groups and now want to highlight the plight of the women of those groups, who are often particularly vulnerable due to the double persecution that they sometimes face, for their gender and their beliefs—for example, the poor young Christian and Hindu girls in Pakistan who I mentioned. The stories of the Yazidi women, some of whom we have met, are horrendous. They suffered unspeakable atrocities at the hands of Daesh because they were of both the wrong gender and the wrong faith. It is of the utmost importance that we highlight the plight of those women, whose stories often go unreported, including the thousands of Muslim and Christian women who have been kidnapped by Boko Haram over the years.

In honour of International Women’s Day on Sunday 8 March, I tabled an early-day motion on International Women’s Day and freedom of religion or belief. The purpose of the EDM is threefold: first, to recognise the intersection between women’s rights and the right to FORB, and to encourage the UK Government to develop targeted programming and aim for women who face double vulnerabilities as members of minority faith communities; secondly, to include religion as a factor of vulnerability in any assessment made in planning and programming; and thirdly, to ensure that sensitivity training related to the international right to freedom of religion or belief is integrated into gender-related and anti-discrimination programmes. I would welcome any information that the Minister can share about how the Government intend to address the specific vulnerabilities that women from minority faith or belief groups face, and I encourage hon. Members to add their name to the EDM if they have not already done so.

I thank hon. Members in advance for their contributions to this important debate, and I very much look forward to the Minister’s response. I am confident that we will get a very good response. I thank hon. Members for making the time to come to the debate.