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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:30 pm on 12th March 2020.

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Photo of Fabian Hamilton Fabian Hamilton Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow Minister (Defence) 2:30 pm, 12th March 2020

I hope the hon. Gentleman will find a way of getting there. He and his wife did outstanding work in Bosnia, saving so many lives. I thank him for detailing that information and for reminding us of the horrific murder on the basis of ostensible religious belief, which in fact has nothing whatsoever to do with true faith. I thank him for that and for the village of Ahmići.

In 2018 the US State Department issued a declaration stating:

“Among the range of universal, interdependent human rights, the freedom to follow one’s conscience in matters of religion or belief is essential to human dignity and human flourishing”

As we know, the United Kingdom is a signatory to the universal declaration of human rights, which protects freedom of religion or belief. The UK is party to the international covenant on civil and political rights. Article 9 of the European convention on human rights, which is part of the Human Rights Act 1998, protects freedom of religion or belief. But the number of countries that regulate religious symbols, literature or broadcasting has increased over the past 20 years. Religious persecution has increased globally every year since 2000.

In 2020, 260 million people—approximately 10% of all Christians in the world—were persecuted for their religious beliefs, which was an increase from 245 million in 2019, and approximately 215 million in 2018. According to Open Doors, 11 countries now fall in the “extreme” category for levels of persecution of Christians. That is up from just one country, North Korea, in 2014—just six years ago. The World Watch List estimates that last year 2,093 Christians were killed just for being Christian. Christian persecution is more prevalent in Muslim majority countries, especially those governed by some form of sharia law.

Violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief have not diminished over the past 10 years. Indeed, conditions have continued. Many conflicts are rooted in or exacerbated by religious differences around the world. Violations of freedom of religion and belief is a truly global issue. Around 80% of the world’s population live in countries with high or very high levels of restrictions or hostilities towards certain beliefs. Let me briefly detail some of those. We have mentioned Myanmar and the persecution of the Rohingya Muslims. There have been sporadic waves of violence against the Rohingya since 1978. The Rohingya are the world’s most persecuted minority. Those Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar are not even considered one of that country’s 135 ethnic groups. They have been denied citizenship in their country since 1982, and thus are effectively stateless. More than half the Rohingya population of Myanmar, a total of 1.2 million, have fled the country during the current wave of violence, mostly to Bangladesh.

Let me move on to China. Article 36 of the Chinese constitution states that Chinese citizens

“enjoy freedom of religious belief.”

It bans discrimination based on religion and forbids state organs or individuals from compelling citizens to believe or not in any particular faith. However, the state recognises only five religions: Buddhism, Catholicism, Taoism, Islam and Protestantism—interestingly, separated from Catholicism. The Chinese authorities tightly control religious activity in the majority Turkic-Uighur province of Xinjiang. Beijing has, as we have heard, allegedly incarcerated more than 1 million Uighurs in re-education camps. The state monitors what Tibetan Buddhists do, to quell dissent in what it regards as a province of mainland China.

Let me move to Iran. The Iranian authorities continue to persecute the Baha’i minority, who number about 300,000. Iran’s supreme leader issued a fatwa in 2013, calling on all Iranians to avoid dealings with the Baha’i, and labelled the group “deviant and misleading”. In March 2014 a United Nations report said:

“Under the law, religious minorities, including recognised Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians also face discrimination in the judicial system, such as harsher punishments”.

We know about Saudi Arabia’s persecution of Shi’a Muslims. Shi’a often have little access to Government services, and state employment continues to be limited for them.

Let me deal finally with Pakistan. As has been mentioned, Pakistan is affected by the experience of chronic sectarian violence targeting Shi’a Muslims, Christians, Ahmadi Muslims and Hindus.