Freedom of Religion or Belief: International Conference — [Steve McCabe in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:49 am on 28th June 2022.

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Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 9:49 am, 28th June 2022

I certainly do. The hon. Lady always makes very pertinent points in her interventions, and I thank her. I will speak about the Uyghurs shortly.

I am a Christian and, in this country, I have the right to go to church as and when I like. That should not be a privilege; it should be a right, but for some it is not. We are all born with a capacity to have a relationship with God, and we should be free to exercise or choose not to exercise that ability accordingly. That is at the heart of who we are as humans, but that freedom and birth right is not the reality for millions of people around the world, which is why the hon. Member for Congleton secured today’s debate. Many of us are motivated to be here on behalf of those people and their right to hold a faith, practise it, and freely change it if they wish to do so.

In a world of increasing division and hostility, I am glad to say that those of us who work to promote freedom of religion or belief in this House work across political divides and from a host of different faith and belief backgrounds. We put differences aside to recognise the similarities that unite us—similarities that are unfortunately disregarded and derided by extremists in other countries, and sometimes by extremists in this country. Yesterday I talked to one of my fellow MPs, who told me that she had been at a family event in the United Kingdom just this week and had been surrounded by a number of activists who publicly derided her and her staff in a way that was completely unacceptable. I feel for her.

May I say how pleased I am to see Fabian Hamilton in his place? I look forward to his comments. I am also pleased to see the Minister in her place. We thank her for answering our questions.

As chair of the APPG, I was in Nigeria last month with the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute in order to witness at first hand the devastating impact of living in a country with ongoing FORB violations. We had wanted to visit Nigeria for some time, because it is in the top 10 on the world watch list for those who are persecuted because of their beliefs. It was an emotional trip because it gave us the chance to see the issues at first hand and to understand what needs to be done to help those with Christian and other beliefs in Nigeria. We had a chance to visit some of the camps for internally displaced people. Some people had been there for seven or eight years. We have ideas for how we can progress that, and for how Nigeria needs to progress it too. We wanted to visit the north-east of Nigeria, where most of the persecution from Boko Haram and ISIS is taking place, but we could not because of the security situation—we understood that—so we did probably the next best thing: we brought representatives of the Churches and so on to meet us in Abuja in Nigeria, where we had a chance to hear from them at first hand.

There are lots of things that need to be done. I will make some comments at the end of my speech, and I hope the Minister will respond to them. In Nigeria, an average of 13 Christians are killed each day due to religiously motivated attacks. The Sunday after we returned, 50 of our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters were murdered in an attack, which made our visit to Nigeria all the more poignant. We focused on those issues, but for such a vicious, brutal, violent attack to take place just afterwards was hard to comprehend.

The total death toll among people worldwide persecuted for their faith or belief must be harrowing. Such facts must lead to a renewed commitment to ensure freedom of religion or belief for all, and to implement policies to make the dream of peace a reality. I hope that the international ministerial conference on freedom of religion or belief will prompt a sharp shift in the degree of urgency—the hon. Member for Congleton referred to that—and fervour that this Government and others give to promoting to freedom of religion or belief. This is a time for leaders across the world, in all countries, to make real commitments to the wider international community and play their part in promoting freedom of religion or belief for all.

I am keen to hear what the Government will announce at the ministerial conference. Will they finally prioritise in the resettlement scheme those in Afghanistan who are at risk due to their faith or belief, rather than waiting until next year to give them priority and secure their safety? Will they do more to cut their ties with China, which Margaret Ferrier referred to, due to its abhorrent treatment of the Uyghurs? We all deplore that; we can never understand how anyone can hate somebody so much. Will the UK use its relationship with Commonwealth countries to put an end to harmful blasphemy laws that are still in place? I am ever mindful that those countries make the decision, but blasphemy laws are used in a malicious, vindictive and clearly secular way against some people. Or might the Government stipulate, for instance, that aid or trade with a country should be contingent on an improved state of freedom of religion or belief for all? There is so much good that could be done, and so many across the world are waiting from it.

Alexander Stafford, who is no longer in his place, asked about the Truro review. We need the three-year progress review, but that does not mean that other work should stop; we need it to continue. We need the focus that the hon. Member for Congleton referred to. We need the manifesto commitment delivered, and we need the Truro report recommendations to be delivered in full. That is the hon. Lady’s ask; it is mine too, and I hope it is that of other hon. Members.

As Ministers and freedom of religion or belief leaders convene across the way at the Queen Elizabeth II Centre for the two-day ministerial conference, I will be praying, as I do every morning, that a positive change comes from those efforts. I also hope that a lot of noise will be made about FORB, and that politicians in this country take note. It cannot go unnoticed that the APPG has 160 members. It is not a numbers game; it is about the interest that MPs and lords individually have in these matters. We are very pleased that our stakeholders represent many religious groups—it is important that they do. We speak up for those with Christian beliefs, those with Muslim beliefs and the Bahaʼis. We do that across the world all the time.

Across the two days there will be a host of events in Parliament as part of the FORB fringe conference. I encourage all my fellow MPs to attend and participate. I come to most of these debates because of my interest in the subject, but I come to other debates to support other Members’ issues, because it is important to encourage each other where we can.

The events, which will be sponsored by a range of non-governmental organisations and charities—I will be meeting Lord Ahmad and the Pakistan religious minorities this week, or certainly next week—will promote freedom of religious belief internationally, and they will cover a range of FORB topics, from country-specific challenges and thematic issues pertaining to FORB to what is being done to ensure FORB for all. We need to look at what needs to be done as well. There will be over 30 events in Parliament altogether, which indicates the interest. If those who have an interest wish to attend, they will have plenty of choice. There is no excuse for Members not to find at least one event that piques their interest. We all have a part to play in promoting FORB for all, and the time to play that part is now.

Many of us in the Chamber will be aware of the biblical reference to the mustard seed. I know that the faith of a mustard seed is enough to move mountains, and I know that so many communities and individuals around the world persevere in their faith or belief in the face of unbelievable brutality. Their ongoing bravery and courage is more impressive than moving mountains.