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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:46 pm on 12th March 2020.

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Photo of Nigel Adams Nigel Adams Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development) 2:46 pm, 12th March 2020

I congratulate Jim Shannon on securing this incredibly important debate, and I commend him for his long-standing commitment to this issue. I also thank the other hon. Members present for their contributions.

I will try to respond to all the points that were raised, but first let me thank my hon. Friends the Members for Henley (John Howell) and for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti), and the hon. Members for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) and for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan). I commend my hon. Friend Imran Ahmad Khan in particular for his personal and touching short intervention regarding the Ahmadi community. I have witnessed at first hand the charity work the community does; I had the pleasure of visiting the Ahmadi mosque in south London, and the Ahmadi community came together in our hour of need during the floods in 2015 and 2016. I am extremely grateful for their support, as are the people of Tadcaster.

Let me start by reaffirming the Government’s unwavering commitment to freedom of religion or belief. Fabian Hamilton just reaffirmed the words of my colleague Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon. That commitment was further underlined by the Prime Minister’s appointment last year of my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham as his special envoy on this subject. I thank him for his contributions to the debate and for the hard work he puts into that important role; I know the Prime Minister and the whole Government are very appreciative. He succeeded Lord Ahmad, who ably held the role along with his ministerial duties at the FCO and continues to champion the subject in his role as Minister for human rights.

In addition to appointing an envoy, we have demonstrated our strong commitment to defending the right to freedom of religion or belief around the world. In delivering on that commitment, we work closely with like-minded partners such as the United States, Canada and our European friends. By standing together and sending a unified message to those who fail to respect religious freedom, we become stronger agents of change.

We have used our influential voice at the UN, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the Council of Europe to raise awareness of the scale and severity of persecution. We have also built strong and lasting relationships with non-governmental organisations, experts, faith leaders and academics, and with grassroots organisations and parliamentarians. That network of allies keeps us closely informed, acts as a critical friend and demonstrates the importance the UK attaches to respect between communities.

That ongoing conversation is important, but does it create the change we need? To evaluate the impact of our work, the then Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend Jeremy Hunt, commissioned an independent review of the scale of Christian persecution globally and the support the Foreign and Commonwealth Office offers to persecuted Christians and, indeed, all persecuted religious communities around the world. The review produced a set of challenging recommendations on what more the FCO could do to support people of all faiths and none in every part of the world. The Government accepted all the recommendations. As we have heard, my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham is overseeing their implementation and reported back on progress to the Bishop of Truro a couple of days ago. My hon. Friend asked officials to categorise the recommendations into short, medium and long-term priorities. Under his oversight, 11 recommendations have been implemented or are on their way to being implemented.

To give an example, work is under way to ensure that British diplomats and officials in relevant roles receive enhanced religious literacy training, to help them understand the role that religion plays in many people’s lives and in the decisions they make. We are also working to establish the UK’s first autonomous global human rights sanctions regime, which will aim to deter individuals from committing serious human rights violations or abuses and to hold those who do accountable. Our commitment has also led us to agree to work towards tabling a UN Security Council resolution on the persecution of Christians and people of other faiths or beliefs in the middle east and north Africa region.

Overall, the UK is working harder than ever to support those who are persecuted on account of their religion or belief and this excellent debate highlights why our efforts are so badly—and sadly—needed. As we heard from various hon. Members, in Pakistan, the members of minority communities, including Christians and Ahmadi Muslims, are suffering terrible discrimination and abuse. We continue to urge the Government of Pakistan, both bilaterally and through our partners and international channels, to ensure that all citizens enjoy the full range of human rights as laid down in Pakistan’s own constitution and enshrined in international law.

In India, we are closely monitoring developments following the passing of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, mentioned by the hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton. We raised our concerns about the impact of that legislation with the Indian Government. The recent violence in Delhi is concerning, and we trust that the Indian Government will address the concerns of residents of all faiths. We continue to engage with India at all levels, including union and state government.

The Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Leeds North East, rightly raised the situation in China. We are deeply concerned about the persecution of minorities, and particularly of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang. We have repeatedly raised our concerns, including in a statement by my colleague Lord Ahmad at the last UN General Assembly and at the most recent Human Rights Council. We had an opportunity yesterday to debate the plight of Uighur Muslims in this Chamber.

In Nigeria, where I know my hon. Friend the Member for Henley has great experience as one of our envoys, we are encouraging the Government to do more to reduce conflict. Last month, the FCO hosted a conference on fostering social cohesion, which looked at the complex drivers of conflict in Nigeria. We began to identify solutions that meet the needs of all communities.

In Iran, which again was raised by the Opposition spokesman, we remain deeply concerned about the treatment of minorities, including the Baha’i community. We continue to take action within the international community to press Iran to improve its poor record on human rights. We did so most recently this month at the UN Human Rights Council.

I will take this opportunity to respond to right hon. and hon. Members’ contributions. The hon. Member for Strangford asked about progress on the Truro review recommendations. We have heard about some of that from my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham. We have accepted the 22 recommendations and work is ongoing to ensure that we implement them. We are committed to implementing the recommendations in full.

The hon. Member for Strangford also asked about progress on the recommendation to ensure that mandatory religious literacy training is available to staff. We are working to ensure that such training is available to all staff and, indeed, across Government. He also asked about tabling a UN resolution to send peacekeeping forces to Nigeria. As he knows, for more than a decade, Islamic insurgents including Boko HaramIslamic State in West Africa—have caused immense suffering to the Muslim and Christian populations. We have made clear to authorities at the highest levels in Nigeria the importance of protecting civilians and we regularly raise our concerns about the increasing violence.

The hon. Member asked about our efforts to rescue Leah Sharibu. We remain deeply concerned about her case and those of all individuals who have not returned home. We will continue to work with the Nigerian Government, non-governmental organisations and civil society to improve the security situation and human rights for all people in Nigeria.

The UK Government will continue to show global leadership in encouraging all states to uphold international human rights obligations and in holding human rights abusers to account. As the Prime Minister announced in his Greenwich speech on 3 February, the UK will also be a global champion for free trade, which is a force for good that underpins stable, open and prosperous global economies.

The hon. Member asked whether we would provide direct aid to vulnerable communities in Nigeria. We are working closely with the Department for International Development—in fact, all FCO Ministers are also DFID Ministers—on freedom of religion or belief. Humanitarian assistance is provided on the basis of need, irrespective of race, religion or ethnicity, and we work to ensure that aid reaches the most vulnerable, including those from religious minorities.

The hon. Member asked how we are helping women from minority faith groups, who suffer from double persecution. We acknowledge the double vulnerability facing women from minority religious communities. Our human rights policy work considers the intersectionality of human rights, and the UK defends the full range of human rights as set out in the universal declaration of human rights.

I turn to my hon. and gallant Friend Bob Stewart. He described his speech as a ramble and as twaddle; I could not disagree more. He described what he witnessed and had to deal with alongside his men and his wife Claire, whom I know. He believes she is the bravest person he has ever met. His was one of the most moving and passionate speeches heard in this place, based on true personal experience. I take this opportunity to thank my hon. and gallant Friend for sharing his experience of the brutal attacks on religion that he witnessed. I also thank him for his outstanding service to his country and the international community. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”]

The SNP spokesman, Peter Grant was absolutely right to raise, in his calm and rational way, a number of important points, including the fact that freedom of religion or belief is the choice of the individual, not a view that should be imposed by the state. He brought the Chamber together with his point that true religion is based on making things better for humanity.

The Chamber will be aware that Christians and other minorities have suffered terribly through the conflict in Syria, particularly at the hands of Daesh. We are working for a political settlement that protects the rights of all Syrians, regardless of ethnicity.

I will conclude to give a minute to the hon. Member for Strangford. While taking action to tackle religious intolerance abroad, we must recognise that it is not just a foreign problem or one that blights countries suffering conflict. It also happens here in the west, where we have seen attacks and antisemitic graffiti. In New York, five people were stabbed as they celebrated Hanukkah. Those attacks show that no country is immune to intolerance and hate.

I assure the House that the Government will continue to be a long-standing champion of human rights and freedoms. We have a duty to promote and defend our values of equality, inclusion and respect, and we will stand up for minority communities around the world and defend the right of freedom of religion or belief for everyone, everywhere.