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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:21 am on 28th June 2022.

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Photo of Brendan O'Hara Brendan O'Hara Shadow SNP Spokesperson (International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution), Shadow SNP Deputy Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 10:21 am, 28th June 2022

Thank you, Mr McCabe; it is good to see you in the Chair this morning. I, too, thank Fiona Bruce for securing this important debate, and I thank everyone who has taken part. The debate has been extremely useful and thoughtful, and we have discussed not just what we can expect from next week’s conference, but the wider challenges of protecting people’s right to worship how, when and with whom they want, as well as defending the rights of those who have no faith or belief.

I am here primarily as the SNP’s international human rights spokesperson, but I am also taking part because I am an active member—indeed, I am secretary—of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief. The APPG is led ably, as we have heard, by the formidable and ever impressive hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). I am an active member of the group because I believe that how a country, or a regime, treats an issue of freedom of religion or belief is usually an accurate indicator of how it views the importance of the human rights of its citizens more generally. For me, the APPG is a human rights groups and an important part of the wider community of human rights defenders.

As we have heard all too often this morning, the need for groups such as ours to shine a light on FORB abuses has never been greater, which is why we in the SNP are delighted that next week’s ministerial conference in London is taking place. We will support any moves to push for greater global action to support FORB, and we stand in solidarity with those beleaguered communities and those brave individuals whose fundamental human right to worship, or not, as they wish is under sustained attack. It is critical that, while we all get behind the call for greater global action, arrangements are put in place to ensure that the delegates to the conference get to hear directly from those religious groups, those humanist organisations and others that are, day in and day out, directly affected by the violence being perpetrated on them on the basis of their religion or belief.

I hope that the policymakers who gather in London next week are able to hear at first hand from the people in Pakistan, India, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Myanmar, Xinjiang, Iran and elsewhere in the world who do not enjoy the freedoms that we take for granted. I thank Sir Edward Leigh for raising once again the case of Maira Shahbaz. I hope the Minister will remind the Home Secretary of the extreme importance of the case and the commitments that were made almost exactly a year ago.

Hundreds of millions of people are living in fear of persecution simply because of the convictions they hold or the faith they profess, and we have a great deal of work to do to protect them from those who would do them harm simply for practising their faith. As we have heard from several Members, there is no typical model of how that persecution manifests itself. It can come in the form of direct suppression or state suppression, or a heavy-handed crackdown, as we would recognise in China and its disgraceful treatment of the Uyghur Muslim population. They have been subjected to the most awful systematic and widespread abuses imaginable, at a scale and ferocity that is almost unparalleled in modern times.

The suppression of the 350,000-strong Baha’i community in Iran is another example of a state using its power to persecute and discriminate against a community because of religious belief and to deny people’s fundamental right to practise their faith. In 2019 the United Nations recognised the Baha’i community as one of the most persecuted religious minorities in the world.

Of course, religious persecution can come from well-organised, well-armed and well-funded terrorist organisations, such as Daesh. Its attacks on the Yazidi people have been recognised by many, including many in this Parliament, as genocide. The attack on Sinjar by Daesh killed thousands. We do not know how many thousands because, to this day, the graves of men and boys are being discovered. We are well aware of the barbaric treatment suffered by Yazidi women, who suffered rape, torture, sexual enslavement, forced sterilisation and all manner of inhumane and degrading treatment by their captors. I take the opportunity to remind the House that, despite the military defeat of Daesh, 2,700 Yazidi women and girls are still missing and unaccounted for after all these years.

As the hon. Member for Strangford mentioned, I was on the APPG’s visit to Nigeria with him and Baroness Cox. We went there to speak with Christian and Muslim religious leaders, civil society activists, people who had been displaced by ethnic and religious violence, and Nigerian politicians. We were also there to highlight the case of Mubarak Bala, the president of the Humanist Association of Nigeria, who in April was sentenced to 24 years in jail for blasphemy. I assure the right hon. Member for Gainsborough that we raised the issue directly with the Nigerian Government, and indeed one of our group had a lengthy meeting with a member of Mubarak’s family, so it is an issue that we are aware of and will not let go.

As the hon. Member for Strangford said, it was a challenging visit, particularly when we were told by almost everyone we met that everything in Nigeria is seen through the prism of religion. All too often people are excluded and abandoned and the cleric, however radical, has replaced the Government as the voice of authority. We saw that for ourselves where we were there. The head of the Methodist Church and two other clerics were kidnapped. Just a week after we came back, 50 Nigerians were murdered in an appalling terrorist attack at St Francis Catholic church in Owo in the hitherto relatively peaceful state of Ondo. That was another worrying indicator that the violence usually seen in the north and the middle belt is spreading to the south of the country.

As Carla Lockhart said, Nigeria is seventh on the Open Doors watch list of places where it is most dangerous to be a Christian. If that watch list was done purely on levels of violence experienced, Nigeria would be at the top. These are incredibly dangerous times for Nigeria. Given the history that the United Kingdom has with Nigeria, we have a particular responsibility to help the people there and do all we can to bring peace, stability and security to that country.

However, there is hope. There is a civil society that is desperate to build a new country and there are religious leaders, both Muslim and Christian, who are doing great work in bringing communities together, but their efforts are being hampered by the endemic corruption that exists in Nigeria. I remember one meeting in which a woman told us that corruption has left people, particularly the young, without hope, and that feeling of exclusion is one of the main drivers of increasing conflict. She told us that politics is so divided in Nigeria that politicians have nothing left to sell other than division, and they stand on a platform of not being a Muslim or not being a Christian because they have no other vision to sell.

There are signs of hope, because people do not want to live in a country ridden with religious division and appalling acts of religion-based violence. Supporting civil society and bringing an end to endemic corruption is a prerequisite if Nigeria is to pull itself back from the brink, and we have to be part of making that happen. That includes supporting the rights of people such as Mubarak Bala and other humanists to hold the beliefs that they do.

One of the organisations we joined with in Nigeria was Bellwether International, a non-governmental organisation that works in pre-genocide and post-genocide communities and has a significant presence in the internally displaced persons camps. Bellwether’s founder and chief executive officer, Rachel Miner, came with us to Abuja and observed:

“The importance of Freedom of Religion or Belief cannot be underestimated. It has the power to bridge the gap between the very worst of society and the very best. Together we can bring the best of society to the world and preserve human rights and human dignity at the same time.”

That is what we should be looking for from next week’s ministerial conference.

We have a fantastic opportunity to use the powers we have to bring the international community together and to highlight and call out abuses of freedom of religion and belief when we see them, without fear or favour, even when it is our own friends who are doing it and it is not perceived to be in our economic interest to do so. I sincerely hope that the UK Government take this unique opportunity to lay out their long-term strategy for tackling religious persecution around the world.