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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:03 am on 28th June 2022.

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Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough 10:03 am, 28th June 2022

These debates go back a long way—over 20 years—and I have taken part in most of them. I remember a debate when Keith Vaz was sitting in the Minister’s place. I instituted a debate on the persecution of the Karen people in Myanmar, and that persecution is still taking place. The lack of progress can be depressing, although I remember Keith Vaz telling me afterwards, “Who would think a small debate in Westminster Hall could actually make a difference?”, and it has in that case. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Fiona Bruce for all the work that she does and for ensuring that once again we have a debate on freedom of religion.

There has been progress with the Foreign Office. When we started all those years ago, the Foreign Office took great care to be completely equidistant and say, “Oh, well, there’s persecution of Christians on the one hand, but on the other hand,” and so on. It is more proactive now, and we have had the Bishop of Truro report and my hon. Friend’s office has been set up, so more work is being done. Gradually, we are raising interest in this subject.

The fact is that more Christians are being persecuted in the world, either through outright persecution, such as in North Korea or parts of north Africa, or by having their human rights severely limited, as in countries such as Saudi Arabia. This is a huge issue. I am not just going to talk about Christians; I am also going to talk about the difficulties faced by Muslims and by religious people around the world.

I want to illustrate the problem with just one case. I have gone on and on about it, but the only way to make any difference in this place is to make yourself a crushing bore on a particular subject. Maira Shahbaz is a Christian girl in Pakistan, who was just 14 years old when she was bundled into a car at gunpoint by three men and then drugged, raped, and filmed and photographed for use as blackmail. She was forcibly converted to Islam and forced into marriage with one of her abductors. Four months later, she managed to escape. She has faced death threats for supposed apostasy and for abandoning her supposed husband. An imam has certified that the wedding was invalid but the case in the civil court still drags on.

On 13 July—almost a year ago—I took a delegation to see the Home Secretary, no less, about the case. I received absolute assurances from the Home Secretary that she was fully cognisant of the case and was going to take action. Lord Forsyth went to see her a year before that and got the same answer. An excellent charity, Aid to the Church in Need, is willing to fly Maira and her family to the UK, help them get on their feet and make sure that they are integrated within the British-Pakistani Christian community here.

If ever in the whole of history there was a case where asylum was justified, here it is, so why has there been no progress? I suspect that there has been no progress—this is an allegation, which may be untrue, but I think I have to make it—because our high commission in Pakistan is not looking at the case with sufficient seriousness. It may be that there are politics involved and that it does not want to irritate the Pakistani Government because of matters of global importance, such as dealing with the Taliban and all the rest of it. I do not know, but this poor girl and her entire family are in one room and nothing happens.

Meanwhile, 60,000 people a year are pouring across the channel. They are already in a safe country; they are not being persecuted in France. They are all very nice people and I have nothing against them individually, but they are obviously economic migrants. They are pouring across while there is one girl who apparently we cannot get into this country, although I would have thought she has a rock-solid asylum case. We go on and on as a Government saying how we have a wonderful record on asylum seekers. Let us give asylum here to people who are genuinely being persecuted, and let us deal with the economic migrant issue. The more economic migrants who are breaking the rules and pouring into the country, the fewer genuine refugees we can take.

Pakistan is a very important issue. Between 2015 and 2019, Pakistan was the largest recipient of direct UK aid, so we must have enormous influence. I really must ask the Minister if we are using it. Last year, we had the report by the International Development Committee on UK aid to Pakistan, which is an important issue. We had a submission from the Institute of Development Studies, which notes that Pakistan requires special attention regarding freedom of religion but reports that

“not many resources have been dedicated to this” within the then Department for International Development’s work on Pakistan. It adds:

“There is some focus on it through education programmes,” but that has been

“a very small part of its overall programmes.”

Can the Minister update us on whether that is still the case? When we are doling out so much taxpayers’ money, why are we so supine when it comes to using our influence? What is the point of funding Governments that either run roughshod over freedom of religion or refuse to lift a finger to support it?

I want to be completely fair and deal with persecution of Muslims as well.