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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:45 am on 28th June 2022.

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Photo of Vicky Ford Vicky Ford Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) 10:45 am, 28th June 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. I start, as others have, by saying how grateful we are to our hon. Friend—we are collectively calling her our hon. Friend—Fiona Bruce, for securing this important debate and for focusing the attention of Members on the Government’s upcoming ministerial conference on freedom of religion or belief. I also thank our hon. Friend for all she does to advance freedom of religion or belief, as the Prime Minister’s special envoy and as chair of the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance.

I am grateful to Members for their comments and interventions and will try to cover many of the points raised. Let me be clear that the Government are unwavering in our commitment to promote freedom of religion or belief for everyone, everywhere. Next week, we will demonstrate that commitment by hosting the UK’s first ministerial conference on the issue. It will bring together more than 500 delegates from more than 60 countries around the world. Representatives will include Ministers, but also representatives from Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, Baha’í and non-religious communities.

As the hon. Member for Congleton so rightly said, involving civil society is vital to championing freedom of religion or belief. The ministerial event will be complemented by a fringe conference organised by parliamentarians and civil society. All countries have an obligation to promote and protect freedom of religion or belief. We will share knowledge and build coalitions to take forward work on important areas, including gender equality, conflict and digital technology.

Many Members who took part in the debate mentioned women in particular. Around the world, millions of women and girls experience discrimination and violence on the grounds of their religion or belief, as well as their gender, and we will use the conference to advocate for them.

In war-torn and insecure places, people are often politically and economically marginalised because of their religion or belief. We will use the conference to stand up for marginalised groups and to advance open societies where tensions are managed peacefully and human rights are protected and promoted.

The internet has given people a new platform to express their beliefs, but it also provides a tool for harassment and persecution. We will use the conference to advance ideas to protect religious belief groups online. Discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief is a global issue that transcends borders. We will use the conference to encourage our international partners to join us in making new commitments around those key policy areas.

The conference is just the latest step in the UK’s leadership on freedom for religion or belief. It coincides with the third anniversary of the Bishop of Truro’s report on the FCDO’s support for persecuted Christians around the world. The bishop has been on the conference’s advisory committee and will speak at the conference.

I pay tribute to my noble Friend Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon for his work as the first UK envoy for freedom of religion or belief and for his leadership on this agenda as the Minister for human rights, which has involved working closely with ministerial teams across the FCDO, as well as with our hon. Friend the hon. Member for Congleton, who is so relentless in her commitment to promote freedom of religion or belief. Work is continuing to deliver on the Bishop’s review recommendations. I can confirm that an independent review of our progress will be published in the near future.

The Government’s work to promote freedom of religion or belief broadly splits into three strands: action at home, collaboration with international partners and taking action on cases of concern around the world. To have influence abroad, we must set an example at home, so Government-funded programmes in the UK protect the rights of members of all communities to live free from fear, hate and violence. Our Measuring Anti-Muslim Attacks programme enables people to report anti-Muslim hate crimes easily. Our support for the Community Security Trust helps to combat racism and antisemitism towards British Jews. Our commitment to turn our Online Safety Bill into law will also help to protect religious and belief groups online.

The second strand of our work is fortifying international efforts to promote freedom of religion or belief, including through the UN, the G7, the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance and the international contact group. Last year, my noble Friend Lord Ahmad chaired a meeting of the UN Security Council to address the persecution of religious minorities in conflict zones, including in Libya, Yemen, Syria and Iraq. The third strand of our work is raising cases of concern and bringing other countries with us on this journey.

Fabian Hamilton spoke movingly about his family history of overcoming challenges to freedom of religion or belief. Jim Shannon also spoke movingly. In this place, we say that where Members are from is the place they represent today. The hon. Gentleman was, of course, born in Omagh, County Tyrone, the place of my own birth. As a child born and raised in Omagh, County Tyrone, during the early days of the troubles and as they continued, a lesson I have carried all my life is the importance of listening to others who have a different religious perspective, learning about what they believe in, and doing that with compassion to bring the sides together and reduce conflict. That is what a lot of our work overseas endeavours to do.

The hon. Members for Strangford, for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart) and for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O'Hara) and others mentioned the situation in Nigeria. My right hon. Friend Sir Edward Leigh was the first to raise the case of the humanist Mubarak Bala. I thank the hon. Members who raised his case during the recent APPG trip—that was very appreciated—and I also raised it in a call with Nigerian Foreign Minister Onyeama last month. I particularly raised the length of Mr Bala’s sentencing, about which many Members are very concerned. We are following the case closely. Individuals must be able to express their opinions freely.

A number of Members spoke about the situation in Nigeria. We condemn all incidents of intercommunal violence in Nigeria, which continue to have a devastating effect on communities, including Christian and Muslim communities. We recognise that religious identity is a factor in many incidents of violence and that it can form an important part of the identity of the groups affected. However, the underlying drivers are often complex and frequently relate to competition over resources, criminality and historical grievances, so the question is: what do we do about that? We are working on a number of initiatives to promote peace, human rights and freedom of religion or belief across Nigeria. We have funded projects in Kaduna, Plateau and Benue states aimed at promoting tolerance and understanding, and strengthening links and dialogue between civil society groups, religious leaders and religious and non-religious groups. We also advocate for responsible journalism. All that takes place alongside other projects to tackle the other causes driving conflict.

I am particularly pleased that no fewer than 14 delegates from Nigeria have registered for the conference here. That includes groups working on interfaith dialogue. That is a real example of people from challenged areas around the world coming to this global conference, bringing their problems to share with others, and learning from others about how they can better tackle the issue.

A few other parts of the world have been mentioned. Earlier this month, my noble Friend Lord Ahmad spoke to Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs about protecting religious and belief minorities there, as well as about the situation of women and girls in Afghanistan. In March, the Foreign Secretary spoke out about the situation in Xinjiang and Tibet in an address at the UN Human Rights Council. The Prime Minister raised his concern about the human rights situation in China in a phone call with President Xi on 25 March.

The hon. Member for Upper Bann mentioned Myanmar, where we are deeply concerned about the vulnerability of religious minorities and reports of the destruction of places of worship. We regularly condemn the violence on the ground and are funding the independent investigative mechanism for Myanmar to bolster the work of collecting evidence of serious human rights violations. We regularly raise this issue at the UN Security Council.