Ahmadi Muslims: Pakistan

– in Westminster Hall at 4:30 pm on 6 September 2023.

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Photo of Elliot Colburn Elliot Colburn Conservative, Carshalton and Wallington 4:30, 6 September 2023

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the treatment of Ahmadi Muslims in Pakistan.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I thank the House for granting us the chance to debate this matter today. The debate is a very heavily subscribed, so I will try to be as fair as can to colleagues by rustling through my speech so that everyone can have their say.

We meet at a very pertinent time, because tomorrow marks 49 years since the Pakistani constitution was amended to declare that Ahmadis are not Muslims. As I will set out later in my remarks, that was just one step in the ongoing discrimination against and persecution of the Ahmadi population in Pakistan—a process that seems to have only picked up pace rather than slowed. As the Minister will be aware, the issue is incredibly important to constituents of mine. The UK has always been a welcoming home for the Ahmadi community, many of whom have settled in my Carshalton and Wallington constituency because of its proximity to the Baitul Futuh mosque in the constituency of Siobhain McDonagh, who is the chair of the all-party parliamentary group for the Ahmadiyya Muslim community—[Interruption.] The mosque is in Wimbledon—I apologise to my hon. Friend Stephen Hammond. I thank all for attending today and look forward to hearing the response from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.

The change in the constitution marked by tomorrow’s anniversary was followed 10 years later by the so-called anti-Ahmadi laws, which were enacted in 1984. The ordinances made it a criminal offence for Ahmadis to call themselves Muslim or practise Islam. Alarmingly, such changes to the law have not slowed or abated; in fact, in the last decade, anti-Ahmadi changes to the law have only picked up pace. For example, in January 2015, the Government introduced a national action plan as a tool to crack down on terrorism, but a number of human rights organisations have noted that the plan has been misused to target religious communities, especially Ahmadiyya Muslims, simply for practising their faith.

Photo of Tan Dhesi Tan Dhesi Shadow Minister (Transport), Shadow Exchequer Secretary (Treasury)

I congratulate the hon. Member on securing the debate and thank him for allowing me to intervene. I have often spoken up about the human rights of minorities, and freedom of religious belief is something that we should strongly protect across the globe. Does he agree that standing by while people are being discriminated against because of their religion, ethnicity or background is simply not on? Is he also concerned, like me, about the potential spillover effect to the United Kingdom of Ahmadi Muslim persecution?

Photo of Elliot Colburn Elliot Colburn Conservative, Carshalton and Wallington

I absolutely agree with the hon. Member. In fact, later in my speech I will speak about just that subject. I am grateful to him for his intervention.

In 2017, just two years after the national action plan, the Koran publications Act was introduced, which prevented Ahmadis from publishing the holy Koran. What followed was a litany of blatant amendments to existing laws, or the introduction of new ones, that leave no question whatsoever as to their intention: not only to discriminate against Ahmadis but ultimately to persecute them in society, both symbolically and physically. That was seen just five years ago in a judgment of the Islamabad High Court that called for the nation’s Ahmadis to be identifiable by adding Qadiani or Mirzai to the end of their names, or by their attire. It also called for them to be identified when applying for key roles in the civil service, education, armed forces or the judiciary—all purely to prevent anyone who is Ahmadi from holding such key posts in their country.

Those are just some of the many recent legal changes that seek to affect every layer of Pakistan’s political and civil society, further pushing out and ostracising Ahmadis, whether that is through the insistence of the Khatme Nabuwwat—the finality of the prophethood clause, which is against Ahmadi belief or teachings—or through even more stringent changes to blasphemy laws, including in the digital space. These state-led anti-Ahmadi legal changes are having real impacts across Pakistan. The numbers speak for themselves. I thank the many human rights and civil society organisations that have been in touch with us ahead of this debate for shining a light and maintaining these figures.

Photo of Rupa Huq Rupa Huq Labour, Ealing Central and Acton

The hon. Member is making an excellent and moving speech, and I am learning a lot about the situation in Pakistan. He mentioned civil society groups. Does he agree with me that our diaspora groups need praising? It was a proud moment in your constituency, Mr Sharma, when the Ahmadiyya mosque in Southall was opened in 2020. However, we should not be complacent, and it is disturbing to know that in 2016 anti-Ahmadi leaflets were found in Stockwell, and in 2019 Channel 44 was fined £75,000 by Ofcom for Urdu-language hate speech. Would the hon. Member agree with me that we should never be complacent and should look at including the Ahmadi community in hate crime strategies in this country too?

Photo of Elliot Colburn Elliot Colburn Conservative, Carshalton and Wallington

I absolutely agree with the hon. Member, and, extending her praise to civil society groups, I would like to break with convention and thank those who are in the Public Gallery.

I will go over some of the figures. Since 1984—that is less than 40 years ago—277 Ahmadi Muslims have been murdered. Over 220 mosques have either been demolished, sealed, set on fire or banned from being constructed. Eighty burials have been denied in common cemeteries and more than 430 graves have been desecrated. That shows the reality of what is essentially state-sanctioned, supported and encouraged discrimination and persecution of Ahmadis. It has led to emboldened harassment, attacks and even the murder of Ahmadis, as well as the denial of their rights—rights that many of us take for granted.

As I have already noted, since 1984 many have tragically been murdered simply because of their faith, with the deadliest attack on the community happening in May 2010, when the Taliban attacked worshippers during Friday prayers at two Ahmadi mosques in Lahore, killing 86 people. One of the latest incidents was the murder of the 75-year-old Dr Rashid Ahmed in February 2023 in Gujarat, which was part of what a number of international agencies have identified as the ongoing, concentrated targeting of Ahmadis.

There is also the attack on the right to worship. Within this House and this nation, there are many people of many different faiths, and many with no faith, and they are free to choose where, how and what to believe. However, in Pakistan, 18 Ahmadiyya mosques have had minarets demolished since 2023 alone. Mosques across Pakistan have been sealed, and minarets have been demolished by police, despite there being no legal justification for such an attack. Alongside that, the right to practice their faith is under increasing attack, leaving Ahmadis isolated and in fear of their lives. The state’s insistence on shutting down any public demonstration of Ahmadiyya faith is seen through Ahmadis being prohibited from building new mosques, meeting, or holding other religious gatherings, such as for Eid.

Photo of Jake Berry Jake Berry Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. The point he raises about the persecution of Ahmadis is absolutely appalling. It is not just about the Government of Pakistan; it also has real effects here in the UK. I have been contacted by members of the community across Rossendale and Darwen, and in east Lancashire more generally, including by Mohammed Shafiq, the head of external affairs for the Bait ul Rasheed mosque in Blackburn. The issue he raises about the ongoing prevention of freedom of worship is that persecution of an appalling nature is not only happening in Pakistan—I have been told by members of the community that similar ideas are being imported to the UK. Although it is very good to have a Minister from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office responding to the debate, this is also an issue for Great Britain and for our fantastic Ahmadi community here in the United Kingdom.

Photo of Elliot Colburn Elliot Colburn Conservative, Carshalton and Wallington

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right that this issue has real implications in the UK through the importation of that hatred and rhetoric on to our shores. I will come on to that in more detail later.

As well as the ban on the publication of religious texts, cyber laws have also massively impacted the Ahmadis’ ability to learn and practise their faith, with social media sites and websites in Pakistan being banned and shut down and websites in the UK, USA and Canada being targeted via the Pakistani state in an attempt to enact Pakistan’s cyber laws.

It is not just in life that Ahmadis are targeted. Since 2021, within the last two years, more than 420 graves have been desecrated and attacked—destroyed and defaced just because they bear Koranic inscriptions. Even the grave of Pakistan’s Nobel laureate, Professor Abdus Salam, has been desecrated to remove the word “Muslim” from the epitaph, such is the state’s tacit—or at least implied—approval.

As for what the British Government have done, I want to thank the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office for its engagement with the APPG when we reach out—I am sure the chair will want to go into more detail on that. I thank the Minister for being willing to meet and listen to concerns, and for reaffirming in a recent written question the UK Government’s commitment to freedom of religion and belief. I am glad that Ministers will continue to raise the issue at the highest level. It is vital that the British Government continue that work through all possible channels—with their Pakistani counterparts as well as with international partners at national and NGO level, to press not just for the relaxation of anti-Ahmadi rhetoric and legislation but its full removal from penal codes and blasphemy laws. Only then can we hope to stave off the wave of anti-Ahmadi hatred.

Photo of John Spellar John Spellar Labour, Warley

Is the right to the free exercise of religion not fundamental to the United Nations charter? Should we not therefore hold countries to account to protect against action by the state and the condoning of lack of enforcement? After all, there are refugee conventions as well. Should we not hold countries to account for that rather, rather than having their Governments fail to satisfy the needs of their people and therefore look for scapegoats, as has happened so often in history?

Photo of Elliot Colburn Elliot Colburn Conservative, Carshalton and Wallington

I am grateful to the right hon. Member for that intervention, and I absolutely agree with him. I look forward to hearing more about that later in the debate. He makes the point very well indeed.

It is clear that there are still huge issues for ordinary Ahmadi Muslims. What are the Government doing and what is the FCDO doing in partnership with the Home Office, as has been mentioned, to better protect and assist Ahmadis who are fleeing persecution and violence? As I have already noted, Carshalton and Wallington is home to many Ahmadi Muslims, as is the London borough of Merton next door.

In summing up, I want to underline why I believe the Government are right to pursue recourse for the Ahmadi community. They should go much further because the Pakistani Government and the widespread anti-Ahmadi violence is giving oxygen to those in other countries far beyond Pakistan’s own borders. The authorities’ fervent discrimination encourages anti-Ahmadi sentiment elsewhere and, as has already been said in interventions, here in the United Kingdom. In 2023 alone, we have already seen anti-Ahmadi extremism take root in other countries. In January in Burkina Faso, nine Ahmadi Muslims were brutally killed one by one after being taken from a mosque near Dori and asked to renounce their faith. They were shot dead when they refused.

In March in Bangladesh, an anti-Ahmadi extremist mob attacked the Ahmadi Muslim annual convention. The fanatics torched the homes of Ahmadi Muslims in Ahmednagar. One Ahmadi, Jahid Hasan, was killed during the attack and over 70 were injured. In Algeria, too, Ahmadis are facing ongoing discrimination. They are being denied the right to practise their faith and being targeted by the authorities. There is at least one Ahmadi prisoner of conscience serving a three-year prison sentence for practising his Ahmadi beliefs.

Alarmingly, such extremism has also reached the United Kingdom. One incredibly shocking incident took place in Glasgow in March 2016 when a shopkeeper, Asad Shah, was murdered—stabbed to death—simply because of his faith. The murderer was said to be inspired by Mumtaz Qadri of Pakistan, the bodyguard who murdered Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer, who supported a review of blasphemy laws in Pakistan. As one Ahmadi human rights group notes, that is an incredibly worrisome reminder of the effect of anti-Ahmadi feelings being left unchecked across borders.

Photo of Jason McCartney Jason McCartney Conservative, Colne Valley

I thank my hon. Friend for securing this important debate. I am proud to represent a vibrant Ahmadi community group in Huddersfield. In fact, many of my constituents would be shocked to hear of the persecution and discrimination that the Ahmadis face not only in the UK but around the world, because locally they see them being involved in so many positive community projects: love for all, hatred for none. I fully support my hon. Friend’s request for the Foreign Office and the Home Office to continue to raise this unacceptable persecution, and I hope that we can all continue to work across the parties to support our vibrant Ahmadi community.

Photo of Elliot Colburn Elliot Colburn Conservative, Carshalton and Wallington

I absolutely concur with my hon. Friend. I had the pleasure of attending the UK’s annual convention, Jalsa Salana, over the summer recess. I know that many colleagues have attended that fantastic event before and have always found the Ahmadi community to be incredibly welcoming. It speaks well of my hon. Friend to raise that point.

I will sum up as I am conscious of time and I want to allow colleagues to speak. The FCDO needs to up the ante in the ongoing dialogue with the Pakistani Government, and to encourage them to fully remove all anti-Ahmadi laws from their constitution and their penal code. Any continuance of state-sanctioned persecution—official or otherwise—will only continue to stir anti-Ahmadi hatred and extremism, which has unfortunately taken root not only in Pakistan but elsewhere. It is not too late to strike at those roots. To do that, international pressure is paramount. I hope that the FCDO will continue to play a central role in applying that pressure, working with other nations, for the many Ahmadis whom I am proud to call constituents, for the many we are proud to have here in the United Kingdom, and for the countless number still in Pakistan who live under constant fear of persecution.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Virendra Sharma Virendra Sharma Labour, Ealing, Southall

Order. I remind Members that they should bob if they wish to be called. If there are no Divisions, I intend to call the Front Benchers at 5.10 pm. I can see six Members. [Interruption.] Seven—sorry, Fiona. We have about 22 minutes, so I will fix a time limit of three minutes each.

Photo of Siobhain McDonagh Siobhain McDonagh Labour, Mitcham and Morden 4:47, 6 September 2023

I congratulate Elliot Colburn on securing this debate, and I thank you, Mr Sharma, for chairing it.

I do not wish to take too long because so many people want to contribute, which gives this debate great strength. We can be assured that Governments in Pakistan, both regional and national, will know of it; they will be watching it and it will have an impact. It is great that so many people from nearly all the parties represented in our Parliament have taken the time to be here today. I have the privilege of being chair of the all-party parliamentary group for the Ahmadiyya Muslim community. It is one of the easier tasks as an APPG officer; due to the incredible lobbying of the community, we are always quorate with very little effort.

We know about the harassment and discrimination that Ahmadis experience in Pakistan and how that percolates to other countries, including, regrettably, our own. The APPG undertook an in-depth investigation into discrimination in Pakistan. The single most depressing fact that I took from all the evidence sessions was that Ahmadis are discriminated against more strongly by younger people than by older people. Liberalism is in reverse in Pakistan, and the discrimination that the community feels is likely to be of a long-standing nature. That is in part because the Government of Pakistan have withdrawn from the responsibility to educate their young people and given the responsibility to people who hold extreme views on religion.

As one of the largest contributors to international aid in Pakistan, Britain has a role to consider how that investment is used. It took me a long time to get to the bottom of the fact that FCDO money was being used to produce books in schools that discriminated against Ahmadis. Will the Minister address the nature of investment in international development in Pakistan? How can he ensure that it does nothing that encourages the discrimination that exists from birth to death? The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington explained how that affects all levels of civil life and the community. With that, I will sit down.

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton 4:50, 6 September 2023

I will focus on two matters of justice: first, the restrictions on Ahmadi Muslim lawyers practising in Afghanistan, and secondly, the detention of Ahmadi religious prisoners of conscience.

Recent announcements in parts of Pakistan that Ahmadi Muslim lawyers must effectively renounce their religion to practice their profession are completely unacceptable. That both the District Bar Association of Gujranwala and the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Bar Council have issued notices saying that anyone applying for admittance to the Bar must positively assert that they are Muslim and denounce the teachings of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community and its founder is a profound breach of the freedom of religion or belief of those lawyers and contrary to international legal standards. It infringes on the freedom of religion or belief of not only the lawyers but any individual who seeks access to justice through representation by one of those lawyers.

I understand that Ahmadi Muslims already find it more difficult to secure legal representation, because threats against advocates who offer to defend Ahmadi Muslims are commonplace. We hear accounts of physical attacks against lawyers, even in the courtroom itself. One such account was on 27 April this year, when a 77-year-old advocate, Syed Ali Ahmad Tariq, was assaulted by other lawyers while practicing in court.

Nick Vineall KC, chair of the Bar Council of England and Wales, has urged the Pakistan Bar Council to take action, specifically on the decisions by the district Bar councils I referred to. He stated that

“such actions are intentionally discriminatory and seem impossible to reconcile with Pakistan’s constitutional principles of religious freedom and equity before the law.”

Pakistan adopted the universal declaration of human rights in 1948, which includes article 18 on freedom of religion or belief. It also ratified the international convention on civil and political rights. The clear targeting of Ahmadiyya lawyers may well prevent aspiring advocates from entering their chosen profession, or force them to choose between their religion and their profession.

I ask the Minister to press the Government of Pakistan and their appropriate senior law officers to take similar action to that urged by Nick Vineall KC and urge the Pakistan Bar Council to ensure that steps are taken to retract the regulations and prevent threats, intimidation and physical attacks against lawyers. I regret that time does not allow me to turn to my second concern, which is the detention of Ahmadiyya Muslim religious prisoners of conscience.

Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington 4:54, 6 September 2023

The problem with this debate is that it has a sad, grave element of déjà vu. I have brought along my file. Some other Members who were here way back in 2014 will remember that we discussed at that time the UN rapporteur on freedom of religion and belief. I will quickly quote what he said:

“I am very concerned by the recent surge of violent attacks against Ahmadiyya Muslims by militant extremists. Such violence is fuelled by existing blasphemy legislation”.

He urged Pakistan to guarantee the right to freedom of religion or belief”, and went on to suggest that it should

“put in place protective measures to ensure…personal security”, and ensure that those who perpetrate such crimes are brought to justice. That was in the report that we debated almost 10 years ago, in 2014.

Since then, we have had a litany of these debates, year after year. Soon after that report came out, a mosque was torched, and attacks and individual murders took place. That went on year after year, as reported. In 2020, as my hon. Friend Siobhain McDonagh said, we produced a report, “Suffocation of the Faithful: the Persecution of Ahmadi Muslims in Pakistan and the Rise of International Extremism”, and at that point we raised the issue of education.

Photo of Stephen Hammond Stephen Hammond Conservative, Wimbledon

The right hon. Gentleman is making a powerful point. We must not stop using everything in this House to continue to raise this issue. If we stop doing it and the Pakistan Government will not listen, there is no chance; at least if we continue to raise the issue of persecution, there is a chance that it can be alleviated.

Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington

That is exactly the point that we have made consistently. Every time there is an outrage, bringing it to the Floor of the House is important, because that is noted back in Pakistan. The view now is that the pattern has been consistent, and successive Pakistani Governments have refused to budge.

There has been continuous censorship, a denial of voting rights, the ban on the publication of religious texts and imprisonment for blasphemy—three years just for an Ahmadi calling themself a Muslim. There are also the implications of what is happening in education. Numbers of people are on death row as a result of the laws that have been put in place.

Everything comes back to the pressure we can apply. Over this period, we have consistently made several demands, including that the Pakistan Government prosecute those instigating hate; offer urgent protection to Ahmadi Muslims; investigate the train of unprovoked violence; repeal the blasphemy legislation; and generally uphold rights. We have a specific role as a Government: the UK plays a specific role in relation to Pakistan. We now need to examine all points of pressure that we can exert. I do not want to be here in another 10 years debating the same issues once again.

Photo of Edward Davey Edward Davey Leader of the Liberal Democrats 4:57, 6 September 2023

I welcome the debate and the fact that so many colleagues from all parties have attended. That shows not only the extent of the persecution that the Ahmadiyya community suffers in Pakistan, but the amazing contribution that the British Ahmadiyya community make in our country with their charitable works in our society, day in, day out, and with their message of peace—His Holiness is one of the greatest speakers on that.

I work with colleagues on the APPG and we have heard the evidence they have set forth today. Like John McDonnell, who just spoke, I have a sense of déjà vu. In fact, it is worse than that: the situation in Pakistan for the Ahmadiyya community is getting worse, particularly given the political chaos there that is creating a vacuum. Extremists are exploiting that vacuum, and we are seeing yet more mosques desecrated, more assaults and more murders.

The British Government therefore have to up their game and raise their voice, working with other countries around the world to ensure that the Pakistani Government and authorities are in no doubt. There may be that vacuum in Pakistani politics at the moment, but it is the army, the police force and the authorities who are propagating the persecution and abuse. They need to hear our voice loud and clear.

I am genuinely worried about where things will go if we do not see some change after all these years. Those of us who have worked with the Holocaust Education Trust, been on trips to Auschwitz, and seen the eight steps to genocide, worry about the fact that that is in the constitution of Pakistan, and that the situation there is getting worse. The path is extremely worrying. Some might say that sounds alarmist—I do not use the analogy lightly—but I feel that our voice must be heard more clearly than it has been.

I urge the Minister, in his response to the debate, to make it clear what actions the Government are taking and what they are considering. Are they considering removing trade preferences? One thing we can do is reach out to the Ahmadi refugees around the world—in Sri Lanka, Thailand and Malaysia—and work with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to make sure they can come to this country and settle with the families they have here. I have a constituent who is an Afghan Ahmadi whose family has been moved to Pakistan. They would like to resettle. They are acknowledged by the UNHCR, but the Home Office is not listening. I urge the Minister to say what action the Government are taking against the Government of Pakistan and what action we are taking to help Ahmadi Muslims around the world.

Photo of Fleur Anderson Fleur Anderson Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland) 5:00, 6 September 2023

It is an honour to serve under your chairship, Mr Sharma, and to be called in this important debate. I congratulate Elliot Colburn on securing it. Given the upcoming elections in Pakistan and the increasing discrimination against the Ahmadis because of them, the timing of the debate could not be better.

Pakistan is a wonderful, beautiful country with whom the UK has a strong relationship. When I visited earlier this year on a delegation with the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief, we were warmly welcomed by Ministers, the Speaker of the Assembly, organisations and many residents. We want the best for Pakistan and feel that this discrimination against one particular community is holding back the country. That is why we care so much.

The Ahmadiyya Muslims are a very important part of my community. There are many thousands in Putney, Southfields and Roehampton. We have many celebrations together, and I see them living out their motto—love for all, hatred for none—on a daily basis. Before I went to Pakistan, I heard from many constituents about the persecution they felt, but seeing it for myself was shocking. I saw persecution and discrimination faced every single day in schools, at work, on the streets, in law courts, in shops, and even in cemeteries. Since the Lahore massacre of 94 people in 2010, most women and children that I met had not attended the mosque for fear of violence.

The 1973 Pakistan constitution enshrines freedom of religion and belief and says that

“every citizen shall have the right to profess, practice and propagate his religion”.

The test of that constitution is when it gets difficult—when there are differing beliefs or theologies. That is when it matters even more that human rights are protected. Ahmadis cannot turn to the democratic system to defend their rights, because they are not allowed to vote or stand for Parliament. They cannot turn to the justice system either. Fifty Ahmadi Muslims are currently in prison solely on account of their faith. Eid festival celebrations this year led to massive police raids to the homes of Ahmadi people who were just practising their faith, with 12 Ahmadis arrested for visiting family and friends to take part in the celebrations.

I urge the Government to press the Government of Pakistan to do the following: allow all Ahmadis to vote in the upcoming elections; release all Ahmadi Muslim prisoners of conscience; revoke the anti-Ahmadi measures and laws taken by Bar councils and Bar associations in Pakistan to target Ahmadi Muslim lawyers; provide protection to all citizens of Pakistan against religious-based violence; and repeal the draconian anti-Ahmadi laws and blasphemy laws that are being used to deny freedom of religion and legitimise violence against religious communities in Pakistan. Finally, the Government should sanction anti-Ahmadi preachers and reject any visa applications from them to visit the UK.

Photo of Alison Thewliss Alison Thewliss Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 5:02, 6 September 2023

First, I pay tribute to the Ahmadiyya community in my Glasgow Central constituency. They have always been incredibly welcoming to me, my colleagues and their neighbours and friends in Yorkhill, where their mosque is located. I particularly thank Ahmed Owusu-Konadu for the work he does in the local community. They have regular fundraising events for many charities, including Glasgow Children’s Hospital Charity, which I know is greatly appreciated.

The more I have got to know the Ahmadi community over the years, the more I have heard about the pressure, danger and threats that they have been under. Members have already spoken of the persecution of Ahmadi Muslims and the fact that this has been going on for decades. Those practising their faith, particularly but sadly not exclusively in Pakistan, have been persecuted and discriminated against—in life and in death, in mosques, in their graves, in businesses and at observances of Eid. They have faced attacks simply for wanting to keep their faith.

What makes this all the worse is that it is endorsed by the Pakistani constitution. It has disturbing consequences for us here in the UK. In 2016, Asad Shah was murdered in the neighbouring constituency to mine—[Interruption.]

Photo of Virendra Sharma Virendra Sharma Labour, Ealing, Southall

Order. The sitting is suspended for 15 minutes.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—

Photo of Alison Thewliss Alison Thewliss Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 5:19, 6 September 2023

As I was saying, this very disturbing aspect of the Pakistani constitution has consequences in the real world. In 2016, Asad Shah was murdered in the neighbouring constituency to mine, his killer inspired by hate speech.

What safeguards are put in place in terms of visas for people coming to the UK? I understand from much of the briefing the Ahmadiyya community has provided that a number of hate preachers have come to the UK on visas and preached their hate, which has consequences for our communities. What safeguards are in place to ensure that that does not happen, and is not allowed to happen, because people, wherever they are, have the right to practise their faith as they wish to in safety and security and without persecution.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 5:20, 6 September 2023

May I say what a pleasure it is to speak in this debate? I declare an interest as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief. I thank Elliot Colburn, who, as always, has brought excellent issues to the House for us all to support, and he does that well.

Pakistan holds a very dear and special place in my heart. As an MP, I have had the privilege of visiting the country a number of times, the latest being in February with Fleur Anderson—she will forgive me for not mentioning all three parts of her constituency. We had a good presentation, we were well received and we learned a lot.

There has been a surge in the prosecution faced by Ahmadi Muslims, alongside a spike in blasphemy allegations that disproportionately impacts such communities. Since February, the situation has deteriorated. Only this Monday, masked men used sledgehammers to damage the minarets on the rooftop of an Ahmadi mosque in Karachi. Reports indicate that a mob attacked the mosque at the time of the Zuhr prayer. As well as destroying the minarets, the mob started chanting slogans against the Ahmadi community and attacking worshippers. That was the second attack this year on the building.

The persecution of Pakistan’s Ahmadi Muslim community has been sustained and systemic. The situation of Ahmadis in Pakistan is also unique, as the group is excluded from the protections other religious minorities have. They are not allowed to vote. Could you imagine, Mr Sharma, how we would feel if we were not allowed to vote? That is how the Ahmadis feel. Even the National Commission for Minorities in Pakistan excludes Ahmadis, when it is supposed to be all-embracing.

Blasphemy cases lodged against Ahmadis have increased tenfold in the last year, and the persecution by the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan party has been significant. Some of the chants and statements coming from TLP supporters mention carrying out attacks against pregnant Ahmadi Muslim mothers to

“ensure that no new Ahmadis are born”.

Those things are totally unacceptable. Graveyards are being desecrated, mosques are being forced to close and acts of violence and graffiti are being committed. We have heard multiple credible reports of members of the police or the armed forces standing by and allowing acts of violence to occur with impunity. Ahmadis have been accused of blasphemy as well.

In the last 30 seconds I will finish with this—it may be many more words in a half a minute than anybody else! As a country, the UK has learned through its long history that when religious minorities are denied rights, it harms the rest of society. When they have been granted equal rights, the UK has thrived. My beseeching to the Minister in the discussions he and our British Government will have with the Pakistan Government is this: I urge the Government of Pakistan to enact the principle of freedom of religious belief for all. We have it, and they should have it.

Photo of Martyn Day Martyn Day Scottish National Party, Linlithgow and East Falkirk 5:23, 6 September 2023

I am grateful to Elliot Colburn for securing today’s debate. There should be no doubt that the principle of freedom of religion is a fundamental one that must be upheld for all, yet too many people face persecution throughout the world for their views, and it is particularly disappointing to hear that such intolerant attitudes may be spreading to these islands.

As we have heard, the Ahmadis view themselves as within Islam and proclaim a Muslim identity, but other Islamic schools of thought view Ahmadi theology as outside Islam. We have heard that the 1974 Pakistan constitution formally denounced the Ahmadis as not part of the Muslim faith. In 1984 and 1986, the Pakistan penal code was amended and stipulated up to three years in prison if Ahmadis posed as Muslims by worshipping in non-Ahmadi mosques, performing the Muslim call to prayer, using the traditional Islamic greeting in public and disseminating religious materials or propagating their faith. The penal code contains a blasphemy law that includes the death penalty, with no evidence required for Ahmadis. The Ahmadis are commonly victims of targeted killings, hate speech and the destruction of their homes, mosques and tombs and have no recourse to justice procedures as they are not considered equal citizens.

Perhaps most worryingly, the violent treatment of Ahmadis is becoming more normalised in Pakistan, sadly often with the assistance of the authorities. From January to July 2023, more than 170 graves and at least two houses of worship were destroyed. In July 2023, 53 Ahmadi graves were desecrated in the Gujranwala district under police supervision, and security forces arrested several Ahmadis for conducting Islamic ritual slaughter in celebration of the Eid al-Adha holiday and thereby posing as Muslims.

In 2022, the Commons International Development Committee, in its report on UK aid to Pakistan, said that the country’s blasphemy laws are frequently misused to settle personal disputes and to target religious minorities. In 2020, there was an increase in blasphemy charges, with at least 199 people charged. Those accused were often subject to mob justice and even extrajudicial killings. Omar Waraich, head of south Asia at Amnesty International, said:

“There are few communities in Pakistan who have suffered as much as the Ahmadis. The recent wave of killings tragically underscores not just the seriousness of the threats they face, but also the callous indifference of the authorities, who have failed to protect the community or punish the perpetrators.”

How do we turn today’s consensual debate and desire to see a positive outcome into action that benefits the Ahmadi Muslims? The UK is Pakistan’s largest European trading, investment and development partner and one of Pakistan’s leading development assistance partners, so I urge the UK Government to use that partnership to encourage Pakistan to abide by its international obligations.

The first step towards ending violence for the Ahmadi should be the revocation of the blasphemy law. Clearly, as the situation is fraught with historical tension and identity rooted in religion, any action and calls must be an exercise in strategic advocacy and diplomacy. The UK has one of the largest Pakistani diaspora communities in Europe, estimated at over 1.6 million, and Pakistan relies heavily on the UK for international development and trade. I therefore urge the UK Government to exhaust all diplomatic channels to convey the need to protect religious minorities and take a stance against the normalisation of religious persecution.

It would not be possible to discuss this vulnerable international minority without some mention of the UK position of cutting international aid spending. In Pakistan, UK bilateral official development assistance spending reduced from £463 million in 2016 to £133 million in 2023-24. The UK Government maintain that their aid spending in Pakistan is geared towards supporting the most vulnerable in the country, including religious minorities such as the Ahmadis. Yet this dramatic decrease puts the future development of marginalised groups at risk and is specifically damaging to the Ahmadis, who have no institutional support in Pakistan and face discrimination in the Pakistan constitution.

In conclusion, I call for the UK Government to be a critical friend. Any Government who do not use their influence to stand up to their friends when their friends are using their domestic laws to systematically oppress members of their own society are a Government with questionable priorities. The UK Government must continue to work with Pakistan and international partners and use the principles of peace and democracy under the Commonwealth to safeguard the Ahmadi in Pakistan.

Photo of Catherine West Catherine West Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 5:28, 6 September 2023

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. It was also a pleasure to hear the opening speech from Elliot Colburn and to hear about the work of the all-party group chaired by my hon. Friend Siobhain McDonagh, which does such an excellent job of highlighting the discrimination against the Ahmadi community.

Fiona Bruce is known in this place for raising the issue of freedom of religion or belief, which she carefully laid out today, and we in this Parliament hold such concepts of peace and democracy dear. In every country and every community, we firmly believe that people should be able to live their lives as they wish and to pray and worship in whichever way they feel most appropriate.

However, in many parts of the world, religion and belief can lead to persecution, and Pakistan is sadly among those places. In debates on freedom of religion, we have repeatedly raised concerns about blasphemy laws and the worrying situation for minorities in Pakistan. It is right that we are able to use this opportunity to shine a spotlight on the treatment of Ahmadi Muslims, which is so often overlooked. In fact, even the true figure for the population of Ahmadis is not really known. The House of Commons Library was unable to confirm it. It could be up to 4.5 million people, but because many people are not included in the census, it is difficult to know the exact number of people in the community.

We heard from my hon. Friend Fleur Anderson about the legal changes and the subsequent application of Pakistan’s penal code prohibiting Ahmadi Muslims from declaring their faith publicly, propagating their faith, printing or obtaining material related to their faith, building mosques or calling their places of worship mosques, and making the call for Muslim prayers. Virtually any public act of worship, devotion or propagation by an Ahmadi can be treated as blasphemy, a criminal offence punishable by a fine, imprisonment or death. That is a draconian and repressive approach to a minority group who, until relatively recently, were seen legally as Muslims.

According to the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, desecrations of Ahmadi gravestones, an appalling act of disrespect, are a regular occurrence. Such actions were described by my right hon. Friend John McDonnell, who has been raising these issues in the House since before 2014. According to the community’s own records, in 2020 alone 164 Ahmadi gravestones were desecrated by anti-Ahmadi actors.

It is clear that the community is persecuted and it is of little surprise that the global Ahmadi community, some of whom are with us in the Gallery today, has moved its headquarters to the safety of London. However, as many Members have already said and I am sure the Minister will mention in his concluding remarks, we need to be aware of the cyber element. I am sure there are people who feel under attack, being a minority here in the UK. We must all be aware of that and the Government must be active on it.

My hon. Friend Dr Huq mentioned the particular issue around the civil society groups in the UK, who educate others on the importance of the community but worry about the ongoing persecution in Pakistan and beyond.

I know that the Minister will wish to respond to the points made by the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington, who secured this debate, and the specific concerns raised by the community in his constituency, so I will keep my own questions for the Minister brief.

My right hon. Friend John Spellar said earlier in the debate that it is right that our Government should hold Pakistan to account because we have a lot to do with Pakistan in so many areas, whether that is through the diaspora or through our strong relationships with the country. We are in a very good position when we talk about things such as climate change, poverty, women’s rights and so on with colleagues in Pakistan. Is the Minister absolutely sure that no UK aid money is being used—perhaps unwittingly—to aid or abet any persecution of the Ahmadi community? Can he say what the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office is doing to protect and promote tolerance, diversity and religious freedoms in Pakistan, specifically where we have that link-in with UK aid?

Photo of Leo Docherty Leo Docherty Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) 5:32, 6 September 2023

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend Elliot Colburn for securing this important debate. I commend his work and his ongoing support of freedom of religion or belief. I also pay tribute to his work as vice-chair as the all-party parliamentary group for the Ahmadiyya Muslim community, which continues its vital work to raise awareness of the issues that we have been discussing today. I know that my hon. Friend addressed the annual conference in Hampshire earlier this summer, which was a very important event.

Colleagues will know that the noble Lord Ahmad, Minister of State for the Middle East, North Africa, South Asia and the UN, is responsible for this portfolio, but being in the other place he cannot speak in this Chamber. Therefore it is my great pleasure to respond on his behalf today. I met him in advance of the debate to talk about this topic. Members will acknowledge his personal deep insight into these issues.

I am very grateful to hon. Members for their contributions to the debate. We recognise the strength of feeling. I will try to respond to the points that have been raised.

Photo of Jonathan Lord Jonathan Lord Conservative, Woking

In particular there was an allegation, or certainly a strong implication, that UK international aid might be going towards textbooks that contain lies or expressions of hatred. Can the Minister assure the House that our aid does not go directly, or indirectly through Governments, NGOs or charities, to textbooks or educational aids that contain lies or hate, and that it will not do so in the future either?

Photo of Leo Docherty Leo Docherty Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for putting that question again. I was already going to respond to it; I am grateful to Siobhain McDonagh for putting the same question earlier. We continue to engage on the critical need for freedom of religion or belief in schools. The UK has supported initiatives to review the national curriculum of Pakistan, providing technical assistance to Pakistan to create a more inclusive curriculum and textbooks, so it is something we are very much aware of. At Pakistan’s universal periodic review in January, the UK formally recommended that Pakistan ensures that school textbooks are inclusive of all religions and that religious minorities can access suitable alternatives to compulsory Koranic studies. That was, of course, at the UN periodic review of human rights. We do keep that continually in our sights. I cannot confirm 100% today that there is not an ongoing problem, but it is something that our mission and our other diplomats are energetically focused on.

Although the debate centres on the persecution of the Ahmadiyya community, I think it would be useful to reaffirm the Government’s commitment to defending the rights and freedoms of all those persecuted for their religious beliefs in Pakistan and, indeed, across the world. The Ahmadiyya Muslim community’s roots run deep in Pakistan, as has been mentioned. From Abdus Salam, Pakistan’s first Nobel laureate, to its distinguished first Foreign Minister, Sir Muhammad Zafarullah Khan, Ahmadi Muslims have made a tremendously invaluable contribution to modern Pakistan. It is poignant that a community so entwined with the founding of that country now faces such devastating persecution.

As has been described today by colleagues, the situation is dire—we recognise that. Discrimination against Ahmadi Muslims and other religious groups starts with Pakistan’s constitution, which declares Ahmadis non-Muslims. The misuse of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws to target marginalised communities is all too common. Preventive legislation is weak, and poor implementation of existing laws allows hate speech and violence to spread with impunity. Over the past few weeks alone, we have seen the appalling incidents of mob violence in Pakistan and the desecration of Ahmadi, as well as Christian and Hindu, places of worship. We stand in solidarity with the victims, and I know all our thoughts go out to those affected. Colleagues may have noticed that today Lord Ahmad tweeted in condemnation of the recent appalling attack on the Ahmadiyya Hall in Karachi in Sindh province.

In terms of UK action, defending religious freedom is at the heart of all our work in Pakistan. Our approach to protecting freedom of religion or belief of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community and all persecuted groups has three pillars. First, we use our close relationship with Pakistan to influence and advocate. Secondly, we support communities through our programme and development work. Thirdly, we use our global influence to spur the wider international community into action.

Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington

I do not want to take up too much time, but the whole debate is about how we can exert pressure. Can I just put on the table the potential consideration of the use of Magnitsky sanctions against individuals involved in the persecution of Ahmadis in Pakistan? Many of them have links with this country, including financial links, so Magnitsky sanctions might prove effective.

Photo of Leo Docherty Leo Docherty Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

I am grateful for that intervention. The right hon. Gentleman will know that the UK has a long-standing relationship with Pakistan, underpinned, as has been described today, by our deep shared history and cultural links. We build on that relationship to advocate for the most vulnerable in Pakistan society, calling out repression in public and in private at the highest levels.

In January, the Minister for development and Africa, my right hon. Friend Mr Mitchell, underlined the need for Pakistan to ensure the safety and religious freedom of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community when he met the then Prime Minister, Shehbaz Sharif. The Minister for South Asia, Lord Ahmad, spoke with Pakistan’s former Minister for Human Rights, Mian Riaz Hussain Pirzada, in June to raise the persecution of religious communities, including Pakistan’s deeply troubling blasphemy laws. He also emphasised the importance of promoting respect for all religions during his meeting with then Foreign Minister, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, in December.

It is crucial that the voices of marginalised religious communities are heard. Everyone in Pakistan, including Ahmadi Muslims, must be able to fully participate in Pakistan’s upcoming elections, as has been described today by colleagues. We therefore continue to urge the Government of Pakistan to uphold these constitutional principles of equality. Lord Ahmad has written to Pakistan’s caretaker Foreign Minister, Jalil Abbas Jilani, to urge the Government to ensure that all Pakistan’s citizens can exercise their democratic rights. The Foreign Minister has replied, assuring us of the Government’s commitment to the safety and security of all Pakistani citizens, regardless of their religious affiliation. Prime Minister Kakar said publicly on 21 August that the state and its laws will stand with oppressed groups, including Ahmadi Muslims, when they are under attack. It is vital that those words are followed through with concrete action.

The UK Government will continue to work with the Government of Pakistan on peaceful, credible and inclusive elections over the coming months. It is crucial that our advocacy continues to be informed by the lived experience of the community we seek to protect. In May, the UK political counsellor visited Rabwah, home to 95% of Pakistan’s Ahmadi Muslims, to gain a deeper insight into the challenges faced by the community. Our high commissioner continues to raise those issues in her calls with senior Government officials, religious leaders and politicians.

Alongside that diplomatic advocacy, our programmes in Pakistan are focused on improving the lives of Pakistan’s most vulnerable citizens. Our Aawaz II programme brings together community leaders and minority representatives to promote tolerance in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab provinces. Our hate speech and disinformation programme works to protect marginalised religious communities and women against hate speech online—an important issue that was raised in the debate. Through the FCDO’s Magna Carta and John Bunyan funds, we have supported research projects to improve our understanding of the challenges that these communities face.

Of course, we cannot tackle such a complex issue alone. We work in concert with our like-minded diplomatic partners, and we continue to use our influence to spur the international community to action. I would like to recognise the work of the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance, ably chaired by my hon. Friend Fiona Bruce, which has been active in raising the plight of Ahmadi Muslims. In March 2022, the alliance called on states to end the discrimination faced by the Ahmadiyya Muslim community, and to defend their right to freedom of expression and freedom of religion or belief.

Last July, we hosted an international conference on freedom of religion or belief, bringing together 100 Government delegations, 800 faith and belief leaders, human rights experts and NGOs, to agree action to protect those freedoms. During the conference, the Minister responsible for human rights, Lord Ahmad, announced new funding to support those who defend religious freedom, including those who are targeted for their fearless activism. As a result of the conference, 47 Governments, and international organisations and other entities pledged to take action to support those fundamental rights.

In January, we used our platform at the United Nations in Geneva to shine a light on the issue, and we continue to hold Pakistan to account, for instance by using our statement at Pakistan’s universal periodic review adoption in July to publicly urge the Pakistani authorities to ensure the safety and religious freedom of Ahmadi Muslims.

I would like to assure my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington and all colleagues who participated in this important and powerful debate that the FCDO works in close partnership with the Home Office and across Government on all these important issues.

Photo of Fleur Anderson Fleur Anderson Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland)

Will the list include something about visas for hate preachers coming to the UK? Will that issue be looked into?

Photo of Leo Docherty Leo Docherty Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

I am glad that the hon. Lady raised that, as did Alison Thewliss—she is not in her place now, but she notified me that she would be leaving. I am pleased to report that we do consider that when visas are issued. Our immigration laws allow us to screen and prevent such people on that basis. I am glad she made that point: we have the capacity to stop such people, and we will use it if necessary.

The UK has a proud history of providing protection for those who need it, through our safe and legal routes, as I mentioned. We continue to welcome refugees and people in need through our global resettlement schemes, working in conjunction with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

Let me conclude by reaffirming that the UK stands in solidarity with the persecuted Ahmadi Muslims in Pakistan and all around the world. We will continue our energetic diplomatic advocacy and our programmes. We are grateful for the contributions of all Members on this important issue in this debate.

Photo of Elliot Colburn Elliot Colburn Conservative, Carshalton and Wallington 5:43, 6 September 2023

I thank the Minister and the noble Lord Ahmad for that reply. I thank colleagues for turning out in such good numbers today. I thank the community for appearing to support us today. I hope that the Minister will continue to do all that he can, so that we can truly achieve the Ahmadiyya motto: “Love for all, hatred for none.”

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered the treatment of Ahmadi Muslims in Pakistan.

Sitting adjourned.