It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I am grateful to Jim Shannon for securing the debate and the role he plays on this issue in this House. I pay tribute to all his work as chair of the APPG for international freedom of religion or belief. I am grateful to all hon. Members for their contributions. My right hon. Friends the Members for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) and for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers), and the hon. Members for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) and for Bradford West (Naz Shah) all made very thoughtful and insightful speeches. Like the hon. Member for Brent North, I am a little surprised to be here. Nevertheless, we are and have the opportunity to recognise and share the feeling in the House on these vital issues. Later in my speech, I will respond to the points hon. Members raised.
The UK is committed to defending freedom of religion or belief for all. It is one of our human rights priorities. Nobody should be excluded because of their religion or belief. Discrimination, as we all know, does terrible damage to societies. Importantly, it holds back economies. A country cannot fully develop or thrive while members of minority communities are oppressed. It is a core message of our diplomacy that communities are stronger, more stable and more prosperous when they embrace their diversity rather than fear it.
In November, my ministerial colleague who is responsible for human rights, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, underlined our commitment to freedom of religion or belief, speaking at the ministerial meeting to advance freedom of religion or belief and the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance Ministers’ forum. All hon. Members present will know that in 2019, the previous Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend Jeremy Hunt, commissioned the Bishop of Truro to undertake a review into the Government’s support for persecuted Christians. I want to confirm yet again that this Government remain fully committed to implementing all the Bishop’s recommendation and promoting freedom of religion or belief for all.
I am delighted, as I am sure everyone here will be, that we have confirmed that my hon. Friend Fiona Bruce will continue that implementation, as the Prime Minister’s new special envoy for freedom of religion or belief. Stephen Kinnock was absolutely right to raise that point, as well as David Linden, who, in a previous debate, pushed on when that appointment would be made. I am thrilled that it was made before the Christmas break. I am sure that my hon. Friend will do a fantastic job.
Those of us who have had the pleasure of visiting India know that it is a magnificent country. It is one of the most religiously diverse countries in the world. It boasts over 20 official languages, over 1,500 registered dialects—it is very similar to Yorkshire in that regard— and a rich tapestry of religious minorities, alongside its sizable Hindu majority. It is also the birthplace of the other great religions of Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. Most notably in the context of this debate, it is also home to the world’s third largest Muslim population—over 195 million people—and approximately 28 million Christians.
Shortly after partition, India’s first Prime Minister, Nehru, said:
“Whatever our religion or creed, we are all one people.”
This is the foundation stone of India. Regardless of religious differences, all citizens can consider themselves Indians.
Indians are rightly proud of their history of inclusive government, and their secular constitution, which hon. Members have referred to. This guarantees citizens equality before the law. We are proud of our diversity and religious pluralism in the UK, and those are shared values, central to the governance of both our countries. They lie at the heart of our partnership, which is further strengthened by the UK’s 1.5 million-strong Indian diaspora—the living bridge between us.
However, as hon. Members have noted, India faces challenges in enforcing its constitutional protections for freedom of religion or belief. The situation for religious minorities across India varies depending on where they live, their socioeconomic background and how their numbers compare to other communities. Some have suggested that the UK turns a blind eye to these challenges, because we do not want to criticise an important partner. I can assure the House that this is not the case. On the contrary, thanks to our close relationship, we are able to discuss the most difficult issues with the Government of India and make clear our concerns, as they do with us, and as one would expect from close partners and friends.