I beg to move,
That this House
has considered freedom of religion and belief.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for allowing time for this debate. Speaking as a Member of Parliament, I seek to bring to bear my experiences over the last two to three years as the UK Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief, and from my role as the chair of the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance, which now comprises 42 countries and growing, even though it is only just over three years old.
The focus of my speech is the need for us to be bolder and braver, to turn more of our words into actions, and to make a positive difference for those who suffer freedom of religion or belief violations. Freedom of religion or belief is a foundational right, but sadly violations of it are increasing across the world, by countries at scale, by terror groups and mobs, and through abuses against individuals imprisoned for their beliefs who so boldly and bravely stand and suffer for their faith. Those people are excluded from education, jobs, healthcare and access to justice; they experience discrimination, harassment and persecution. They are at risk of being incarcerated, tortured or even killed simply on account of what they believe. The men, women and children around the world who suffer, whether under the hard arm of authoritarian regimes or at the ruthless whims of militant mobs, need not just our voices, but our partnership—not just our words, but our good deeds.
That is why, after the London ministerial last July on freedom of religion or belief—a two-day gathering, which I had the privilege of co-chairing with Lord Ahmad, that was attended by more than 1,000 Government representative delegates from more than 80 countries, with more than 130 side events at the FORB fringe— I said, “These two days cannot be just a talking shop. We must turn our words into action that follows.” My special envoy team and I organised a third day after the conference; I pay tribute to David Burrowes, my deputy special envoy, and my private secretary from the Foreign Office, Sue Breeze.
That event was a “next steps” day, when more than 100 people from across the international community concerned about freedom of religion or belief, or FORB, sat down and worked out some action priorities, which the special envoy team has since worked to implement. In some cases they have begun to be implemented and in others we have made some good progress, with the support of the global council of experts of the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance—a group of 40 experts from across the world—and in conjunction with representatives of the UK FORB Forum, a forum of 70 concerned organisations chaired by Mervyn Thomas, the founder of CSW, who is in the Gallery today.
I will particularly focus on strengthening collaborative working on freedom of religion or belief between grassroots activists, academics, lawyers, civil society experts, faith leaders, non-governmental organisations and Government representatives such as myself. Not long ago, it was encouraging to hear Mervyn Thomas, a seasoned observer in this field, say that he has never seen the FORB community more connected than it is today. We will make a difference only if we work together. The International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance is a growing organisation. Our countries range from the Americas, Canada, Brazil, Costa Rica and across Africa, such as in Sierra Leone, down to Australia and through to many European countries. We are an organisation based on action.
What are the practical next steps that have been taken since the London ministerial last July? IRFBA—a difficult acronym to say—has inspired a 24-hour global virtual youth conference on FORB. This will take place on 19 and
Other work has been done for young people. For instance, throughout the last academic year since the London ministerial, curriculum materials have been developed for the very youngest children—five and upwards—to understand the importance of not discriminating against others on account of their religion or belief, with a pilot being undertaken in four schools in the UK, including one in my constituency. Preliminary feedback is encouraging —children as young as five can quickly grasp the concept of FORB—and I have been encouraged by the interest in this work shown by our Schools Minister. I hope we can roll it out to more schools nationwide, and internationally across to our IRFBA countries in due course. I call this the ultimate upstream prevention work.
The special envoy team, together with the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance, is driving forward work in a number of other areas. Time prohibits me from going into detail, but let me list them. We are championing individual prisoners of conscience—at least one a month over the last year—and we have already seen two people imprisoned for their beliefs released. The most recent is young Hanna Abdimalik from Somaliland, a 24-year-old who converted to Christianity, was reported to the authorities by her own mother and was imprisoned for five years. I am very pleased to say that she was released last month.
We are building an international network of FORB roundtables, such as the UK FORB Forum, which has been so successful. We are networking and supporting human rights defenders working on FORB. We are better engaging with the media on FORB. This is a struggle, but we are doing our best to look at how we can better bring this major international concern into the media, both social and mainstream. We are working on atrocity prevention to help to call out abuses earlier. We are working with lawyers on legislative reform. We are looking to protect religious and cultural heritage with a very active working group, and we are beginning to network on international best practice for trauma counselling and rehabilitation, so that people such as young Hanna can get appropriate support when they are released from prison. This is the kind of work I mean when I say that we need to turn words into action.
That is the good news; and why is it so important? Because of the bad news. The bad news is that it has never been more important to champion FORB because it has never been more at risk. What is the evidence? Look across the world at what has happened in the over two and a half years since I was appointed as the UK Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief in December 2020. We have seen a military coup in Myanmar dramatically exacerbating the persecution of religious minorities there. We have seen the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, with every belief group there, other than those willing to succumb to the Taliban’s oppressive ways, now living in daily fear. Eritrea and Uganda have grown increasingly authoritarian.
FORB restrictions have increased in Tunisia, as well as in Algeria, to which I led a delegation just a few months ago. In Algeria, dozens—indeed, most—of the evangelical Protestant churches have been required to close in the last few years. Pastors now face court proceedings. The Catholic social action charity Caritas was shut down—actually, while I was there—a few months ago. Ahmadi Muslims face huge fines. Not one synagogue is left open in the capital, Algiers, and Bible Society literature has been blockaded from distribution from ships at port. Also in Africa, in Nigeria, year on year increasing thousands of Christians are massacred by the ISWA—Islamic State West Africa—terrorist network.
I commend the hon. Member and all the other Members who engage on this important issue on an ongoing basis. She is outlining a whole series of international incidents and issues. Does she agree that there must be an international response to all this, to ensure that there is wider understanding and then action taken, as she has outlined?
The hon. Member is absolutely right. I am pleased that the international response through the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance is strengthening, but we need to do more and we need more countries to join it.
In Nicaragua, the Catholic Church has been targeted this year, with religious organisations running schools and medical centres peremptorily expelled. A university was shut down last month. Even Mother Teresa’s nuns, who have been working there for 30 years, were thrown out with no notice. Meanwhile, dozens of pastors flee Cuba. We are all too aware of China’s incarceration of 1 million or more Uyghurs, but how many of us know that a similar number of children—1 million or so—as young as two years old have recently been removed from their homes and families in Tibet and transported to residential schools, to alienate them from their families, cultures and beliefs? In Hong Kong, the public voice of the Church has been neutered.
In the period since I was privileged to take up the office of envoy, the war against Ukraine has erupted, with places of worship being deliberately destroyed, pastors disappearing and Putin weaponising Orthodox Christianity. In Russia itself, Jehovah’s Witnesses, who are pacifists, are now being imprisoned as criminals—even the very elderly.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s amazing work as the United Kingdom’s envoy. With regard to Ukraine and Russia and the point made by Mr Campbell—who is to my right in this Chamber but not to my right politically—the United Kingdom has imposed the toughest sanctions possible to address Putin’s war machine and hold him accountable. The question was raised about the international community coming together to address and to hold to account those who violate religious freedom. Will the envoy say whether the 42 member countries of the alliance—I declare that I was its vice-chair—have come together to ask respective countries to look at sanctioning certain individuals across the globe for their violations of international religious freedom or belief?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. As chair of the alliance, I have certainly asked our sanctions unit to look at individuals, but it is an excellent point: the alliance collectively could also look at that.
Ukraine is a founder member of IRFBA, but Ukraine and many central European countries around it now face Putin crouching at their door. For them, defending FORB is more than a principle; it is a lived reality. They faced communism, they faced the Nazis. Working with my counterparts from those countries humbles me. I am referring to counterparts such as Ambassador Robert Řehák from the Czech Republic, the IRFBA vice-chair. When he was at school during the communist era in what became the Czech Republic, the state police came to see him and said, “If you keep speaking out like this, we’ll take you away.” He says, “I knew they meant it, because I had seen the bodies taken away through the streets of Prague in black bags.”
All the FORB violations that I have referred to and more, in all the countries where FORB violations have increased, are impacting on millions of people across the world. It is a tragedy that so many violations are happening in our time and that the numbers of people affected are so huge. Individual men, women and children are affected. They are suffering simply because of what they believe and simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. But there are too many wrong places and this is in our time, the 21st century.
It is a tragic paradox that globalisation, which not long ago, in the 20th century, was heralded as the route to a more connected, confident and civilised future for the world, seems to have spawned, in the 21st century, a far more insecure, fractious and fragmented international landscape. The current global trajectory is away from a rights-based order or consensus, prioritising democracy, civil liberties and the rule of law, to what could increasingly be described as a values-based order—and those values are not always positive, focusing on national, religious, ethnic or political priorities.
Since the turn of the century, an increasing number of countries have seen the creeping eclipse of liberal democracy and its replacement by an authoritarianism led by so-called democracies such as Russia and inspired by the model of the People’s Republic of China. A new authoritarian influence that openly seeks to reinterpret and redefine human rights is on the increase, aided and abetted by technological developments, facilitating persecution on a scale unimaginable a generation ago. That technology, which is sold around the world to dozens of countries, also feeds another recent trend: transnational repression. Consequently, it often appears, as the writer Anne Applebaum so powerfully noted in The Atlantic, that “The Bad Guys Are Winning”—a piece she otherwise titled, “The Autocrats Are Winning”.
For authoritarians, FORB represents an existential threat. For states and rulers who seek to impose their worldview or ideology and who wish to control the national narrative, the public presence of diverse and vocal religious and belief groups is intolerable. For them, ultimate loyalty must be to an authoritarian leader and no other. That, of course, is no more tragically seen than in the outworking of the egregiously cruel regime of Kim Jong-un in North Korea, where three generations of a family can be punished for the so-called crime of one, and where a two-year-old child has been sentenced to life in prison simply because his parents owned a Bible.
As well as the autocrats—the so-called bad guys—regrettably, too many Governments, which may be called “the good guys”, view FORB merely as a niche interest, to be engaged by a few of us with a particularly religious perspective on life. Yet FORB is not a niche topic or a sidebar issue. That perception has to change. Here in the UK, we cannot just tick the FORB box by saying, “Well, there’s a special envoy.” The so-called good guys have to be bolder and braver to call out FORB abusers, and those of us involved in this work need to work harder to communicate that.
FORB is a foundational human right. FORB concerns should therefore be core concerns at every international summit, because they are at the core of so many human rights violations today. I will give just one of the many examples of continuing blind spots in identifying FORB abusers for what they are—and this one is by the good guys. While women in Iran have bravely led the charge against the brutal theocratic regime, journalists and politicians alike have not fully grasped the fact that, at heart, the protests are about FORB violations. The imposition of religious dress codes is a FORB issue. It is FORB that the Iranian regime fears most because, as with all authoritarian regimes, FORB represents an existential threat. With angry crowds shouting, “Women, life, freedom,” it is the realisation of FORB in full that will ensure respect for women, for life and for freedom for everyone in Iran. This is the issue on which the future of Iran hangs.
If global trends continue, the stage is set for an era of diminishing human rights. FORB will continue to be a prime casualty of that decline, which will be exacerbated by inadequate understanding—even by the good guy countries—of FORB as a foundational human right and of its importance in the human rights realm. We have been too accustomed to countries merely paying lip service to FORB rights and obligations, having signed up to international agreements including article 18 of the universal declaration of human rights and the international covenant on civil and political rights, but without honouring the obligations in them. In a country that has signed up to both those agreements, it is simply not acceptable for a young girl to be kidnapped from her home, forcibly “married” by being raped multiple times, and then turned away when she goes to a police station or tries to get justice through the courts. We should call this out more.
If the era that I have described continues, we can expect even the pretence of assent to begin to fade. That is why the good guys must be bolder and braver. Although human rights are independently valuable and interdependent, the right to FORB is a foundational value. Without the freedom to believe or not to believe, it is hard to see how other human rights make sense. Freedom of speech, freedom of peaceful assembly, freedom of movement, freedom of expression, the right to equality before the law, the right to education, privacy, family life and marriage—all those rights are predicated and contingent on the right to thought, conscience and religion.
Citizens cannot be truly free if they cannot live according to their beliefs. Without the expression of what has long been considered a sacred inner liberty, external rights lack grounding and legitimacy. Political, social and economic freedoms cannot co-exist alongside major limitations on FORB. FORB can exist without democracy, but it is hard to see how democracy can exist without FORB. FORB can also be considered a foundational value, because violations of it provide an early warning system for other human rights troubles and their trajectory. That is why we need to call out abuses at an early stage.
Much good work is being done, as I mentioned at the outset, but we need to do still more to be bolder and braver and to turn more of our words into action. We need a dedicated Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office Minister in the House of Commons working on the issue of religion or belief. I am grateful to the Minister for being here today, and I know she takes great interest in the subject, but last week it was the Minister for Europe, my hon. Friend Leo Docherty, who responded to our debate on the Ahmadis. During Question Time in the main Chamber, it is the Minister responsible for international development, my right hon. Friend Mr Mitchell, who answers questions on FORB. This is too important an issue for us not to have a dedicated Minister in the House of Commons, much as we have one for women and girls. On every foreign trip, a Minister should be accompanied by a FORB briefing, which my special envoy team is more than willing to provide. We also need to ensure that recommendation 6 of the Truro review—that the special envoy role be embedded in legislation—is put into effect.
Order. The debate can last until 11 o’clock. I am obliged to call the Front-Bench spokespersons at no later than 10.27 am, and the guideline limits are 10 minutes each for the Scottish National party, for His Majesty’s Opposition and for the Minister. We should then have a couple of minutes at the end for the mover of the motion to sum up the debate. There will be a five-minute limit so that everybody can get in, and Jim Shannon will lead by example.
That will be difficult, Mr Hollobone, but I will try my best. I thank Fiona Bruce for setting the scene so very well. I commend her sterling work in this House for freedom of religion or belief, and for Our Lord and Saviour. It is important work, and I thank her for it.
As the chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief, I want to raise two issues: India and Pakistan. This debate is not to attack friends, but to share a lesson from our history. The UK has learned enough through its long history to know that when religious minorities are denied rights, it harms the rest of society. When they have been granted equal rights, the UK has thrived.
I am concerned about the ongoing violations of religious liberty that have been allowed to continue in the Manipur region of north-east India. Between 3 and
The events in Manipur might be classed as originating in tribal or ethnic tensions, but the Manipur violence has silently been an attack on Christians in India. It is striking that local police and state government sat by as arson destroyed the properties, homes and lives of minority and religious groups. The religious aspect of the violence has not been widely reported. The perpetrators of the violence are understood to be from Hindu extremist backgrounds, whereas the victims are predominantly Christians. Some 230 churches were destroyed over a four-day period. Many perpetrators of the violence did not act in a random manner; their violence was deliberately targeted at Christians, and they wanted them to flee their lands.
“take urgent steps to restore calm” and
“to tackle the impunity enjoyed by mobs perpetrating the violence and respond to stem the violence in line with their international human rights obligations”.
The United Nations Human Rights Council declared that the violence had “reached a breaking point” and appealed to the Government of India to address the ethnic, tribal and religious crisis.
I am incredibly saddened to say that the situation in Manipur has escalated even further, with 60,000 people now displaced and 360 churches damaged. In the five minutes that I have, I have many questions for the Minister, but one of the most urgent is whether the violence in Manipur was mentioned in any formal discussion when our Prime Minister was in India. I know that the Minister is not responsible for what the PM says, but I am sure that discussions have taken place, so let us find out whether the Prime Minister brought these things to the attention of the Indian Government and whether those issues were raised. Journalists are still being prevented from doing fact-finding investigations. Will the Minister make representations to her Indian counterparts to find a way for journalists and human rights reporters to access the region?
I have been twice to Pakistan; we were there in February. The abuse of women and children in Pakistan concerns me. Members of Christian, Hindu, Sikh and other communities have suffered for decades under the weight of an oppressive system under which FORB is guaranteed by law but often disregarded in reality. Some 150 Christian families were evacuated due to persecution in the last month alone.
There is some positive news: caretaker Prime Minister Kakar has declared the state’s dedication to protecting religious minorities. However, 1,000 young Hindu girls and women are abducted each year, as are Christians. One young girl, Chanda Maharaj, was 15 when she was kidnapped. What happened to Chanda is unimaginable. Will the Minister join me in condemning such brutal and unjust governance?
Some 57 blasphemy cases have been registered—more than in the previous year—and some 79 people have been murdered in the name of blasphemy laws. The attacks on Ahmadiyya Muslims have been well publicised in a previous debate, but there is something wrong when 4 million Ahmadiyya who live in Pakistan do not have the freedom that they should have.
This year, foreign aid to Pakistan totalled £41.54 million. As I and others have long said, let us have that aid tied to freedom of religion or belief, human rights and equality issues, and ensure that the freedom that we all wish to see actually happens. At the moment, it does not.
I have three final questions for the Minister. Was the issue of Manipur raised at the G20 meeting? Has the Minister raised the issue of access to Manipur for journalists and human rights monitors and their counterparts? And—
“You may choose to look the other way, but you can never again say you did not know.” Those were the words of William Wilberforce in a 1791 debate in this House on the slave trade, quoted by the Bishop of Truro in his groundbreaking 2019 report on the persecution of Christians. It is an apt quotation for today, after everything that we have heard in this debate about the plight of Christians and other religious minorities around the world.
I urge the Minister to ensure—as the special envoy, my hon. Friend Fiona Bruce, urged—that the Government take action on the recommendations of both the Truro report and the influential ministerial conference last year. Research by organisations such as Aid to the Church in Need and Christian Solidarity Worldwide tells us that thousands are suffering simply because they want to follow their faith in freedom.
In China, we are seeing the tragedy of the Uyghurs. We have also seen a dramatic exodus of Christians from the middle east. Nigeria is a hugely dangerous place to be Christian, for many people; the abduction of 276 mainly Christian schoolgirls made headlines in 2014, but that is just one of many kidnappings that have been followed by rape, forced conversion and forced marriage. Nine years on, many of those Chibok girls are still missing.
In Pakistan, there are frequent examples of Christian and Hindu girls suffering forced conversion, as Aid to the Church in Need documented in its 2021 report “Hear Her Cries”. Blasphemy can be punished by death in Pakistan. Allegations that are malicious, vindictive and without substance are often made. Insight UK reports that Hindu temples have been attacked and vandalised. At the time of partition in 1947, there were approximately 400 Hindu temples in the Sindh region of Pakistan; there are now barely 20. Amnesty International has highlighted attacks on Hindu and Christian women in Pakistan and has called on the Pakistan Government to keep the promise made in August 1947 by one of the country’s founders, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, that religious freedom would be protected.
I also want to talk about Cyprus, which has an ancient civilisation dating back to 9,000 BC. It is close to the holy land and was one of the first countries to embrace Christianity. It is believed that in 45 AD the apostles Paul, Barnabas and Mark visited Cyprus. The island is home to a huge number of churches, monasteries, mosaics, murals and icons that stretch back to the earliest days of Christianity.
In July 1974, Turkey invaded Cyprus, and it continues to occupy 37% of the territory of the Republic of Cyprus. Since the invasion, about 500 churches have been desecrated or badly neglected, 77 have been converted into mosques, 28 have been used as barracks by the Turkish military and 13 are believed to have been used as storage rooms or hay barns. Thousands of priceless icons have been looted. There is a thriving illicit trade in cultural artefacts, which is fuelled by illegal excavations and smuggling. That not only perpetuates the destruction of religious sites, but finances criminal activities. Many religious sites are impossible to access because they are located in Turkish military zones. There are worrying instances of Orthodox and Maronite Christians who live in enclaved communities in the Turkish-controlled area of Cyprus being unjustly prevented from conducting religious services and practising their faith.
I appeal to the Government to work with international partners to protect the cultural heritage of Cyprus, bear down on the illegal trade in artefacts and, above all, put pressure on the Turkish authorities to restore full freedom of religion in the north of Cyprus, as well as giving Cypriots the freedom to determine their own future as Cypriots, free from Turkish military control.
Matthew 5:10 says:
“Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
That may be a comfort to those who are suffering for their faith, but it does not absolve us in this House of our obligation to speak out for those facing discrimination, violence and hatred because of their religion. That is what we must all continue to do, to play our part in changing life for the better for Christians and other religious minorities around the world.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank the special envoy, Fiona Bruce, for securing this important debate, and I thank all my colleagues in the all-party parliamentary group, particularly Jim Shannon, for their work on the issue.
I will focus on the effects of social media on promoting misinformation, intolerance and inflammatory speech that challenges people’s right to freedom of religion or belief, especially in crisis areas. The danger of social media companies in that respect has been noted by the companies themselves. A Meta company worker said in 2019:
“We have evidence from a variety of sources that hate speech, divisive political speech, and misinformation on Facebook…are affecting societies around the world. We also have compelling evidence that our core product mechanics, such as virality, recommendations, and optimizing for engagement, are a significant part of why these types of speech flourish on the platform.”
That is partly why Labour has repeatedly warned that the Government’s Online Safety Bill may not go far enough in its focus on content rather than on social media platforms’ business models.
In 2021, many fake social media accounts pretended to be “#RealSikh” members of the community in India. A groundbreaking report by Benjamin Strick of the Centre for Information Resilience, reported on by the BBC, found at least 80 fake accounts, many using profile pictures of celebrities, posting divisive posts seeking to discredit Sikh political interests such as the farmers’ protests, often labelling them as extremist or claiming their infiltration by extremist groups. Benjamin Strick said that the aim of the network appears to have been to
“alter perceptions on important issues around Sikh independence, human rights and values”
Those accounts have now been suspended because they were fake. The danger of such information has led to religious and ethnic violence and tensions.
I took a close interest in the report at the time because many of those fake accounts also targeted me and other politicians. I could see how effective they seemed to be in generating a narrative and abuse that seemed to take on a life of their own. I have no problem with individual voters challenging me on x—it comes with the job—but I am concerned about politically motivated misinformation campaigns that appear to have money behind them and to be co-ordinating across platforms on a large scale. Areas of the media in which it is possible to buy political influence and distort debate are generally carefully regulated, but that is not the case with social media, which it is why it has become such a target for manipulation.
The network used so-called sock puppets—fake accounts controlled by real users, as opposed to automated bots—posing as independent people. Nikhil Pahwa, a digital rights activist, has noted:
“These 80-odd accounts will not necessarily make something trend, but with consistent posting, they try to discredit a point of view…This seems to be a sophisticated approach, and seems to be a part of a larger operation.”
The farmers’ protests and the decades-old Sikh independence movement were two discussion topics targeted by the network, with attempts to delegitimise both.
The same phenomenon has had incredibly grave consequences elsewhere in the world. As the United Nations found in Myanmar, hate speech and calls for violence on Facebook played a major role in fomenting the Rohingya genocide and later religious and ethnic violence in the country. The continued exile of nearly 1 million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh is surely a testament to the seriousness with which we should be taking the issue.
Similar speech is reported to have greatly contributed to the violence and potential genocide in Tigray. Meta is currently facing a $2 billion lawsuit, backed by Amnesty International and filed in Kenya, for allegedly contributing to the violence against the Tigray community. Facebook has allowed the incitement of violence in the region for years, and although there are efforts to stop it, they have not been entirely successful.
As Internews Europe told the International Development Committee in evidence submitted to its inquiry on atrocity prevention,
“media, online and social media platforms with significant reach have been deployed as part of deliberate efforts to dehumanise particular ethnic or religious groups, disseminate grievance-based narratives and incite violence”.
His Majesty’s Government must do more. More must be done to enforce respect for FORB throughout the world, particularly in the United Kingdom and its partner nations. When we see persecution and hate still rife across the world, it is incumbent on all parliamentarians across the House to reaffirm our commitment to the values and principles set out in the 2021 G7 summit communiqué, which for the first time referred specifically to freedom of religion or belief. As the Prime Minister absconds from the role of international statesman that British Prime Ministers used to hold, failing even to show up at many of the international fora at which issues such as FORB will be raised, I hold out hope that his Ministers will take a stand for human rights in his stead.
As always, Mr Hollobone, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate my hon. Friend Fiona Bruce on securing this debate from the Backbench Business Committee. She has devoted much of her time in Parliament to speaking out on behalf of those who dare not whisper their faith even to their closest family for fear of losing their home, their job or even their life.
On Sunday, I was invited to St John’s church in Shiphay for its harvest celebration. It was great to be part of the congregation as the community came together to thank God and those who produce our food for the harvest. We had a little too much soft refreshing rain—in the words of the famous hymn—falling outside, but the warmth of welcome in the church was clear. I thank Rev. Paul Ireton and the whole team at the church for the invitation to join them and for all their work to support the wider community.
Attending a church event or fun day is an experience that many colleagues will be familiar with; it is routine. Yet for too many across the world, the simple act of attending church on Sunday can mean putting their life on the line. This debate is about standing up for people’s right—not to have the same faith as me, but to express their own beliefs. The 1948 UN universal declaration of human rights states that everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and the freedom to choose, change and practise their own belief or faith, or not to profess one. The declaration is complemented by the 1981 declaration on the elimination of all forms of intolerance and of discrimination based on religion or belief.
While the two declarations are non-binding on states, they set out expectations that those with religious faith, and those without, have the right to choose and practise their beliefs. The protection for FORB in the 1966 international covenant on civil and political rights is binding on states that have signed it. To date, there are 173 parties to the covenant; perhaps unsurprisingly, those that have not yet ratified it include China and Cuba—a reminder that religious and political persecution go hand in hand, as denying the right to believe in God is so often linked to leaders who wish to put themselves in His place.
As touched on already, religious persecution is still too common across the world. In 2020, US-based Pew Research Centre found that Government or societal harassment was reported in 155 countries against Christians, in 145 against Muslims and in 94 against Jews, out of the 198 countries surveyed. Globally, apostasy—renouncing a faith or belief—is potentially punishable by death in at least 10 countries¸ as is the case in seven for blasphemy.
As hon. and right hon. Members will know, the organisation Open Doors does fantastic work to support the persecuted, with much of it going unheralded due to the circumstances in which its teams operate. Its annual world watch list is a comprehensive assessment of the levels of persecution faced by Christians around the world. To give some perspective, 312 million Christians face very high or extreme levels of persecution in the top 50 countries alone of Open Door’s world watch list. As has been touched on, few will be surprised to hear that North Korea tops the list, given the way that all freedoms are suppressed by its despotic regime, but other names, such as Mexico at No. 38, might be more of a surprise, as the list looks at not just the position of Governments, but the experiences of Christians in daily life.
In its May 2023 summary of trends, Open Doors identified six key points. The first is that violence in sub-Saharan Africa has reached new heights. Secondly, the China model has a growing number of emulators, with authoritarian regimes effectively taking inspiration from how China oppresses its citizens. The third is that China’s digital control is threatening the Church, as has been touched on in other contexts, and its ability to manipulate social media. The fourth is that conditions for the Church in Latin America have worsened. Fifthly, the Church in the middle east is reduced and still under pressure. But there is some good news: greater tolerance in the Gulf was the sixth trend. Each trend is either a challenge for the future or, in one case, a sign of how a growing sense of economic freedom can bring with it a demand for the right to choose our own religious faith.
I look forward to the Minister’s response. I would be interested to know what role the analysis provided by groups like Open Doors plays in the Government’s work, and how she would describe the difference the UK makes in this area, particularly on its engagement with China. I welcome the chance to have shared my thoughts in the debate and to once again be in this Chamber standing up for the freedom of religious belief. It is natural to question why and to explore what we believe, yet too many still cannot do that without putting their life, home or job on the line, and that is what the debate is about.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I pay tribute to Fiona Bruce for securing the debate and for her cross-party work on these important issues.
Earlier this month, I was pleased to represent the APPG for international freedom of religion or belief at the International Religious Freedom Summit 2023 in Taiwan, where we heard some harrowing tales of the persecution, torture and even killing of people for their religious beliefs in a variety of countries. It was truly shocking. Our cross-party all-party parliamentary group seeks to advocate for those without a voice so that they are heard loud and clear. We help those without the freedoms that we enjoy to be heard and seen, and we will fight on their behalf until those freedoms, which many of us take for granted, are available to one and all across the globe. As we look around our world, the scourge of persecution against religious minorities remains a challenge for all of us to tackle head-on, now and in the future.
The APPG recently published a report on the state of freedom of religion or belief in Nepal. The report, which I recommend that colleagues read, details the need for support from the UK, in terms of both policy assistance and training, to help Nepal to execute the vision in its constitution. Sitting between China to the north and India to the south, Nepal is uniquely situated at a strategically vital point in the region for the expression of freedom of religious belief. Nepal boasts a liberal constitution that ensures that all citizens have the right to freedom of religious belief, but minority religious communities still face persecution. I look forward to the APPG and the FCDO taking steps to support Nepal through this ongoing process, and I call on the Minister to designate funding to support a training delegation to Nepal to help local administrators with FORB best practices.
Nepal has a large population of Tibetan refugees; indeed, according to the lowest estimate from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, about 12,000 Tibetan refugees now live in Nepal. A 2015 UNHCR report states that as many as three out of four Tibetans may not possess up-to-date refugee cards. Without identification, they cannot access basic Government services or move from Nepal, which means they are left in a state of limbo as a minority religious community. They are denied documentation and the basic rights of citizens. That is not to mention the group of over 23,000 Bhutanese refugees who are mostly living in camps in eastern Nepal, and who need documentation to continue their lives. In any future delegations to or discussions with the Nepal Government, the future of those tens of thousands of displaced people must be discussed.
International human rights law is underpinned by the universal declaration of human rights. When a human right is abused anywhere, that contributes to the breakdown of the rule of law everywhere. Of course, such a breakdown will have a huge impact on the democracy and health of communities the world over, which is why it is vital for parliamentarians and elected representatives of the people at all levels of government to uphold the universal declaration of human rights. We should be able to worship our gods and have our beliefs according to our consciences, and we should allow all other men, women and children to have the same privileges and let them also worship how, where and who they want.
For all the calls for respect, understanding and decency, it is important also to remind ourselves that around the world many groups of different faiths celebrate, learn and come together. We must never forget that although we may come from different religious faiths, we strengthen each other when we embrace each other. We need to work in solidarity and never walk by on the other side. By working side by side with, honouring, standing up for and protecting each other, we can build a better, more inclusive and safer world for all of us. To build that better world, we must never forget the threats that remain alive today. Regimes that oppress freedom of religion are likely to violate other human rights too. Of course, the protection of our freedoms is vital not only for the welfare of individuals but in preventing unrest and instability and delivering that better world for all of us.
It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I start with a declaration of interest: I am a former UK special envoy for freedom of religion or belief, and was also the co-vice chair of the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance when it was first set up in 2020, working alongside the United States. I also refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests for other interests related to religious freedom.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Fiona Bruce, who has done an outstanding job as the United Kingdom special envoy. I echo her request to the Foreign Office and the Government for a dedicated Minister. I was an envoy and a Minister in the Foreign Office, so I know that we have brilliant duty Ministers, but to do fairness and justice to this issue, we must have the consistency of a Minister turning up to the Dispatch Box, having heard what Members of Parliament have said before; that would bring credibility to the issue. I also support the call for dedicated support, structure and resources for the envoy’s role.
That having been covered, the question is this: how do the United Kingdom Government advance international religious freedom as a top priority? Page 3 of the report produced by the House of Commons Library on
“In her submission to the Backbench Business Committee, Fiona Bruce MP, who acts as the UK Government’s Special Envoy on FoRB, raised 13 countries of particular concern: Algeria, Afghanistan, China, Eritrea, Iran, Myanmar, Nigeria, Nicaragua, Russia, Sudan, Tunisia, Ukraine, and Uganda.”
They were also on my desk when I was the envoy. How do we make those countries accountable?
We have the tools. Our key tool is sanctions. I am a former Minister for sanctions; we have seen the key role that sanctions have played in addressing Putin’s illegal war in Ukraine. In how many of those 13 countries have we applied sanctions to individuals who are FORB violators? We have sanctions with regard to Ukraine and Belarus and we have Magnitsky sanctions, but how many have been applied in these countries? I ask the same question of the 42-member alliance. It was 26 when we started it, so I pay huge tribute to the envoy for taking it to 42. The alliance has a responsibility. Has the alliance come together to say, “These are the individuals across the world who violate human rights and, to protect freedom of religion or belief, we need decisive action in a co-ordinated manner and to share that with our respective countries back at home with a sanctions department”? I think that is absolutely crucial.
In the United States, Knox Thames, who was a State Department adviser for over 20 years, has written a brilliant report. In May 2023, he said that the United States has only once ever refused a visa to an individual for FORB violations. If it is once in the United States, how many times have we in the United Kingdom refused visas for individuals who breach religious freedom or belief? Can the Minister take that away? Time is running out.
The other point I want to raise is with regard to a closed petition condemning the burning of the Holy Koran in Sweden. A petition was put to the House of Commons, and 64,000 people signed it. It made the point that where individuals burn holy books with regard to the incitement of hatred, whether it is the Koran, the Torah, the Guru Granth, the Gita or the Injil—across the board—that kind of behaviour incites intolerance and hatred. Therefore, countries such as Sweden and Denmark that allow it under freedom of expression need to reconsider what that leads to. The point was made earlier that freedom of religion or belief is not just doing the right thing; it is absolutely about doing that, but it is also a national security imperative. If we do not have strong cohesive societies, it leads first to non-violent extremism and then violent extremism, and that creates havoc in our societies.
I finish with words from His Holiness Pope Francis. On the burning of the Holy Koran, he said he was “angry and disgusted” and that he “rejected and condemned” permitting the act as a form of freedom of speech. I ask the Minister to make very clear the United Kingdom Government’s commitment to ensure respect for all scriptures and that, whenever that is violated, we call it out, and to ensure that we do everything to make representations to Denmark and Sweden so that this kind of behaviour does not go unchallenged.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. As everyone else has done, I want to congratulate Fiona Bruce both on securing the debate and on all the work she does in this area. She made a very powerful and considered opening contribution and that was followed by six equally well-informed and impassioned contributions from Back-Bench Members of different parties.
Looking back, we seem to have a debate like this about this time of year. I do not know if that is deliberate or not, but it seems to be becoming a bit of an annual tradition. That is quite appropriate because on
Sadly, as we have heard throughout this debate, the denial of those rights is on the rise around the world. Perhaps one of the most frustrating and disappointing aspects of this is that the persecution of people for their religion or belief is most often carried out by people who hold or practise a religion or belief of their own. Yet a core teaching of almost every major world religion is the golden rule of the ethic of reciprocity, which is that we should treat others as we ourselves would wish to be treated. Peace and justice are preached, but too often violence and oppression are practised.
We have heard a number of references to various reports about the rise of threats to freedom of religion or belief, including that of the UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Nazila Ghanea. Her report earlier this year stated that challenges to FORB were “alarming”, and were undermining efforts on conflict prevention, other human rights such as freedom of speech, and the ability of minorities to participate in public life. I think all Members have drawn out this link between the fundamental principles of freedom of religion or belief and all the other human rights on which the world order is supposed to be based.
We have heard about various countries where apostasy or blasphemy are still criminal offences—in some places punishable by death—including a number of Commonwealth countries, despite the Commonwealth’s proclaimed shared goals of prosperity, democracy and peace. We have also heard reflections on the Pew Research Centre’s published assessments on these issues. It has assessed that the number of countries with high or very high Government restrictions on religion has increased steadily from 47 in 2014 to 57 countries by 2020. It is clear from contributions that threats to freedom of religion or belief also come from non-state actors that are allowed to act with impunity while the state either turns a blind eye or actively supports or encourages them.
At the same time, we should recognise and pay tribute to the work of the many organisations that advocate for freedom of religion or belief and monitor the situation around the world. I am thinking particularly of Open Doors, which publishes its annual world watch list—that is of interest to many constituents in Glasgow North, and I am sure to the constituents of everyone here—as well as Aid to the Church in Need, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and many others. The staff, researchers and partners of these organisations often put themselves at risk collecting the evidence and testimonies that inform our debates, so we should be very grateful for their work.
I hear regularly from constituents in Glasgow North who raise their concern about the oppression and persecution of faith communities around the world. They are concerned about the increasing oppression of Christians in Pakistan, which Jim Shannon spoke about, and have cited a recent example where Christians were forced to flee the Punjab town of Jaranwala after violence broke out following accusations of blasphemy against one of the local cleaners. The Ahmadiyya Muslim community in Pakistan also faces severe persecution by the state, which I think makes the determination of that community to live by their precept of love for all and hatred for none all the more inspiring.
The struggle for peace and justice in the Holy Land, which has been mentioned, is incredibly complex, but respect for freedom of religion has to be at the centre of any just and lasting solution. Yet extreme elements of the Government of Israel are pushing for arrangements and territorial designations that will make access to holy sites for Christians—not just residents, but potentially tourists and pilgrims—much more difficult.
We are marking the first anniversary of the death of Mahsa Amini in Iran, and the start of the demonstrations for women, life and freedom that began in the wake of that tragedy. Women should have the right to wear religious dress as they see fit, but they should also have the right to choose not to, and no Government or state body should be punishing them for that decision. That is also true in Afghanistan, where the Taliban’s treatment of women is abhorrent, and many people who belong to religious minorities have fled the country. We have also heard case studies about China, where any religion not sanctioned by the state can be subject to severe repercussions, including the appalling treatment of the Uyghur Muslims that many argue is tantamount to genocide.
All of this demands a response from the UK Government. They must consider how seriously they can live up to the principles they say that they support. Rehman Chishti made that point powerfully in a fitting closing speech from the Back Benches.
We cannot pretend that cuts to the aid budget have happened in a vacuum. Funding for conflict resolution projects in some of the world’s most volatile regions—including Nigeria, mentioned by Theresa Villiers, and Myanmar, mentioned by Preet Kaur Gill—was cut to the tune of around £12 million in April 2021. Those cuts do not help the UK’s global influence or its ability to be taken seriously when speaking about these matters on the global stage. The solutions proposed by the hon. Member for Congleton, the hon. Member for Gillingham and Rainham and others for how the Government can take FORB seriously and ensure that it is front and centre when Ministers travel overseas and have the opportunity to raise it with international partners are absolutely correct. The Government need to step up their work on atrocity prevention and introduce a whole-of-Government approach.
Constituents in Glasgow North and people across Scotland want to do their part to promote and respect harmony between people of all religions and none. I have spoken before about the excellent work of the interfaith movement in both Glasgow and Scotland more widely, and the practical work it does to bring together people of different communities. The Scottish Government continue to lay out their vision for independence, including a written constitution that will enshrine respect for human rights in the foundation of a new Scotland. That way, hopefully, we can all play our part together to continue to promote freedom of religion and belief, and respect for human rights, around the world.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Mr Hollobone. I thank Fiona Bruce, the special envoy, for securing the debate. I thank all colleagues for their contributions and all the organisations that many of us have drawn on. As Patrick Grady said, they do such important work, often in very dangerous circumstances, bringing the truth to light about some truly horrific situations around the world.
I thank the special envoy in particular for her powerful opening speech and for highlighting the growing trend of clampdowns on freedom of religion or belief across the world in many different contexts, including by states. She was right to highlight not only the situation of the Uyghur Muslims in China, which we often hear about, but the persecution that has gone on in Tibet, not least of Tibetan Buddhists. The horrific circumstances there include the state monitoring of monasteries and the use of facial recognition cameras, restricting people’s practice of their beliefs. She was also right to highlight the Bishop of Truro’s important report, which we have debated many times in this place.
Jim Shannon, who is always a powerful advocate on these issues, was absolutely right to draw attention to the situation in Pakistan. Theresa Villiers raised important concerns about Cyprus, which have also been raised with me; I saw some of that with my own eyes on my visit there. My hon. Friend Preet Kaur Gill is always a powerful advocate on these issues as well, and she rightly highlighted the dangers of social media and disinformation in spreading intolerance and hatred. My hon. Friend Ruth Jones raised the situation in Nepal, and the hon. Member for Glasgow North rightly raised the situation in Iran, particularly for women.
All those examples and the others that we have heard about show the real concerns about the clampdown and the trends that we see globally. There is huge concern across the House about these issues and a desire for the Government and the United Kingdom to play a role in promoting freedom of religion or belief not only domestically, but globally through our diplomatic networks and other engagements, including sometimes difficult conversations with allies and friends about issues in their own countries. We have a crucial role in that as a leading member of the United Nations Security Council and many other bodies, including the Human Rights Council.
We all know that the 1948 declaration of human rights states that everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and freedom to choose, change and practise their own belief or faith—or, indeed, not to profess one. In their most recent survey, in 2020, the special rapporteur found that legal restrictions on freedom of religion or belief have increased in recent years, including restrictions on the freedom to worship publicly, the operation of humanitarian agencies and associations, the appointment of faith leaders and access to education.
We know that in many cases the greatest persecutors and inhibitors of such freedom can be states themselves. The special rapporteur said that
“states employ a range of extra-legal measures that violate freedom of religion or belief, which also serve to delegitimise and stigmatise certain religious or belief groups.”
As we have heard on a number of occasions, the rising intolerance of authoritarian regimes throughout the world is supplemented by the increasing use of technology as a means of state-sponsored repression and the increased adoption and implementation of anti-blasphemy laws and the criminalisation of apostasy.
The hon. Gentleman mentions the role of authoritarian states, but what about democratic states? The House of Commons Library briefing dated
We have to have a robust, honest and candid dialogue with our closest friends and allies. Indeed, a number of those have already been mentioned, and I will go on to mention a number of them myself. It is incumbent on us to have those conversations when there are clear concerns. The hon. Gentleman mentioned several countries, but there are a number of democracies around the world where we see these issues.
The hon. Gentleman is right. Further to the intervention by Rehman Chishti, there are ways of doing this; I indicated that in my speech, as did others. We can tie human rights and freedom of religious belief in with aid. We give India and Pakistan substantial aid, as we do other parts of the world. If we make that conditional, we can effect some change.
Indeed, there have always been, as far as I understand it, partnership principles in giving UK official development assistance. It is important that all those are considered when we engage with countries, even those that are friends and allies or might be rightly receiving assistance for other reasons. The US Commission on International Religious Freedom identified 16 countries of particular concern in 2023 and recommended 11 countries for a special watchlist. In 10 countries, the crime of apostasy is potentially punishable by death in all or part of the state, and there are seven countries where blasphemy potentially carries the same sentence.
We have heard about persecution of lots of different faiths. It will be too difficult to do justice to all of them, but let me highlight a few instances. On persecution against Christians, according to Open Doors, more than 360 million Christians worldwide suffer high levels of persecution and discrimination for their faith. That is a staggering one in seven believers. In Sudan, the ongoing political unrest has led to an intensification of anti-Christian sentiment. We have seen a horrific situation in Afghanistan under the Taliban, with the Christians who remain in the country pushed into hiding; those who are discovered could face the penalty of death. We have seen the expulsion from Nicaragua of the Missionaries of Charity, founded by St Teresa of Calcutta, and the religious of the Cross of the Sacred Heart of Jesus without due process.
In Egypt, there are reports that authorities have continued to prosecute and imprison Christians and other religious minorities. Jihadist violence continues to wreak havoc and horror in northern Nigeria, where a horrific attack in June last year saw 41 people killed at the St Francis Xavier Catholic Church in Owo. In Myanmar, pastor Hkalam Samson remains in prison for his religious beliefs. The sad fact is that I could go on and on, but there is simply not enough time to speak to the number of situations where Christians face persecution.
On the persecution of Jews, antisemitism is utterly abhorrent and I know that all hon. Members will condemn it in all its manifestations. The most recent report from the special rapporteur, in 2019, stated clearly that
“in many States antisemitic harassment is significantly underreported. Nevertheless, reports of hostility, discrimination and violence motivated by antisemitism have increased in many parts of the world.”
Eighty-five per cent of respondents
“felt that antisemitism was a serious problem in their respective countries, 34 per cent reported that they avoided visiting Jewish events or sites because of safety concerns, and 38 per cent had considered emigrating because they did not feel safe as Jews.”
The UK has a critical role to play both at home and abroad, whether on the desecration of cemeteries, on attacks and killings at synagogues or on the daily persecution and discrimination that so many Jewish people face around the world.
On the persecution of Muslims, the appalling treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang and of the Rohingya in Myanmar are high-profile cases, but we have seen that in many other places. India, Pakistan and Bangladesh are all rich and diverse societies, but we must all continue to raise concerns about religious freedom wherever necessary and urge the leadership of those countries to ensure that the right to freedom of religion is fully respected, whoever happens to be in the minority. We unequivocally condemn recent incidents of Koran burning and other attacks on Muslim communities. Indeed, I have stood alongside Muslim communities in my own constituency when they have faced violence and intimidation from the far right and neo-Nazis, with swastikas sprayed in their communities and acts of violence towards mosques and Muslims in my local area.
We also see violence against Hindus. In 2020, Dipti Rani Das, a teenager from the Hindu minority in Bangladesh, was arrested for a Facebook post, taken to a detention facility and held for 16 months. She faced up to seven years in jail for “hurting religious sentiment”. Whatever the rights and wrongs of her post, that is an extraordinarily draconian approach to take to an under-age individual. Amnesty and others successfully campaigned for her eventual release, but huge concerns remain.
Of course, there is also persecution of Sikhs. We saw a horrific assault on two Sikh businessmen in Peshawar, Pakistan, in May 2022. Afghanistan, under Taliban rule, has seen the near extinction of the Sikh community, which goes back to the 15th century. Until the 1980s, there was a vibrant community of 300,000 Sikhs, who played a critical role in the economy. It is now believed that their number is down to 200 people in hiding, as many have fled the brutality of the Taliban. Sadly, we know that humanists, atheists and those with no religious beliefs also face continued persecution, and we have discussed many such cases in the House.
I want to ask the Minister a few specific questions, given the horrific record that we have heard about today. First, it was good to see that the G20 communiqué specifically highlighted UN General Assembly resolution 318, particularly its
“commitment to promote respect for religious and cultural diversity, dialogue and tolerance”,
but can the Minister outline why this issue did not feature in the G7’s communiqué and whether the UK, as a leading member of the G7, the Security Council and other bodies, will ensure that we use all forums to highlight these issues?
Secondly, what steps are being taken more broadly to ensure that freedom of religion is prioritised internally? We have heard different suggestions about how that might be done, particularly in our bilateral conversations with friends and allies. We need to ensure that freedom of religion is central to our diplomatic and economic engagement.
Finally, could the Minister explain how the Government continue to engage with diaspora, civil society and religious communities here in the UK on setting priorities? They often have critical insight and intelligence about what is happening and the experiences of those within their faith communities, and it is critical that the Government engage with them.
I am privileged to represent a constituency with huge religious diversity. At the last count, I think I had eight mosques, three Hindu temples, a Sikh gurdwara and a Jewish synagogue. There is every type of Christianity, from Greek Orthodox through to Nigerian Pentecostal, Catholic, protestant—you name it. One of my predecessors, who is a Member of the Senedd, is a humanist celebrant. Cardiff South and Penarth is a place of huge religious diversity and tolerance, going back to our history as a port city, and I am really proud of some of the interfaith work that goes on. When we have had difficulties and there have been threats to people, the community has responded. Sadly, however, we do not see that in so many situations and countries around the world. The UK has a critical role to play, and I hope to hear from the Minister what steps we are taking to ensure that we uphold the UN declaration and the fundamental principles that we have all espoused today.
I congratulate the Prime Minister’s special envoy for FORB, my hon. Friend Fiona Bruce, both on securing the debate and on her long-standing and vociferous commitment to doing the incredibly difficult job of being all our voices and making sure that the UK’s position is heard. I thank her for pushing us on at every stage.
I also thank all Members present for their ongoing engagement through the APPG for FORB, which continues to champion this essential human right to colleagues in the House, policymakers and, indeed, the general public more widely, and for highlighting some of the organisations that help us to do that, such as Open Doors. Such organisations bring vital analysis to public awareness and help parliamentarians and the Government to focus on our work and the advocacy that we want to continue to do.
The shared passion in the House for protecting freedom of religion or belief alongside other human rights is clear and warranted, and I hope to be able to respond to the points raised in the debate. If I cannot respond to them all, I will make sure that we do so in writing in order to highlight the UK’s action in this incredibly important arena.
Let me restate that violence against any person because of their faith or belief is completely unacceptable, and the Government have long been committed to promoting and protecting FORB for all. Although this right is clearly enshrined in international human rights law, the situation globally remains of grave concern. As my hon. Friend the special envoy set out, there is a sense that it is going in the wrong direction in too many areas. Every day, people are persecuted, harassed and, indeed, killed for their beliefs.
Religious intolerance and persecution are often at the heart of foreign and development policy challenges. Where religious freedom or belief is under attack, human rights across the piece are often threatened too. My hon. Friend raised the challenges that we see in Iran, where the root of what we are talking about here is visible, and we need to ensure that we always highlight that. She set that out incredibly well.
In July last year, the Minister responsible for human rights, my noble Friend Lord Ahmad, and our special envoy hosted the international ministerial conference on FORB, where more than 100 Government delegations, 800 faith and belief leaders, human rights experts and non-governmental organisations came together to agree actions to protect these freedoms. During the conference, we announced new UK funding to support those who defend religious freedom or belief, and 47 Governments, international organisations and other entities pledged to take action in support of this fundamental right.
Since last year we have built on the momentum of the conference in a number of ways—first, by working through international bodies, within the multilateral framework, to strengthen coalitions of support and protect FORB for all. The shadow Minister, Stephen Doughty, raised some of the places where that has been easier or, sometimes, harder to achieve in the multilateral environment.
Secondly, we have been using the strength of our own global diplomatic network to encourage states to uphold their human rights obligations. To answer a number of colleagues’ questions and, indeed, the envoy’s message, I can say that I travel to no country without a very clear brief on the issues around any human rights challenges, specific or more broad. Every Minister, whenever they are travelling, has that in their portfolio of information and, where the opportunity arises, we will raise those issues with the people we meet.
I know that the right hon. Lady always tries to give answers on the issues that we bring to her attention. I referred specifically to the violence against Christians in Manipur, which was reported recently in The Times, and I asked her to find out whether the Prime Minister, when he was in India, made any representations on that issue. The right hon. Lady has said that she raises issues all the time. It would be unwise and inappropriate if our Prime Minister had not done the same, so we would like to make sure that he has. I also asked for some information on the role of journalists and media in Manipur province, where they have been prevented from entering. There are big issues in India, and if our Prime Minister does not ask those questions when he is in India, there is something seriously wrong.
I obviously was not privy to the conversations that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister had, but I can say that, as the Minister who oversees India, with my Indo-Pacific portfolio, I always raise issues of concern. We have very clear and direct private conversations at every level where we feel that is appropriate, and India is no different from any other country, but I am happy to ask the Prime Minister’s office to get back to Jim Shannon if that would be useful.
On the multilateral point first, we work across the UN, Council of Europe, G7 and International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance to try to protect and promote this incredibly important human right. Our envoy acts as the UK representative and is the current chair of the alliance. The alliance has grown incredibly strongly under her leadership and now has 45 members, friends and observers. The joint statements recently issued by the alliance covering restrictions and concerns for different faith or belief communities around the world are most welcome and important. I also commend the alliance’s recent programme of targeted advocacy on cases of individual prisoners of conscience.
We of course regularly raise situations of concern at the UN Human Rights Council. That work is led by Lord Ahmad; it is in his portfolio. In July, during the adoption of Pakistan’s universal periodic review, the UK urged the Government of Pakistan to ensure the safety of persecuted religious communities, including, of course, Ahmadi Muslims and Christians. At the most recent session of the council, which began last week, we called on Sri Lanka to respect its citizens’ rights to freely practise their faiths or beliefs. At the UN Security Council in June, we led with the United Arab Emirates on a resolution about tolerance, peace and security. The resolution directly addresses, for the first time, the persecution of religious minorities and other minority groups in conflict settings.
In recent months, we have actively engaged in UN discussions on the balance between freedom of religion or belief and freedom of expression, following incidents of Koran burnings in Europe. In our bilateral work, we regularly raise specific issues with other Governments both in public and private: for example, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, my hon. Friend David Rutley, met Nicaraguan human rights activist Bianca Jagger in May, and discussed the situation in Nicaragua and the plight of imprisoned Bishop Álvarez. On Afghanistan, UK Ministers and officials engage regularly with a range of Afghans, including Hazaras, to ensure our policy and programming reflect the diversity of needs there. Providing a platform to Hazaras at the ministerial conference last year raised awareness of their situation and enabled an ongoing dialogue with Ministers and policymakers across the world.
We remain concerned that religious and ethnic minority populations continue to decline in Iraq, and we raise these concerns with the Government of Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government. When my noble Friend Lord Ahmad visited Iraq earlier this year, he held an informative and very helpful roundtable with religious leaders. We are also implementing a £15,000 programme to improve religious tolerance and social cohesion in Nineveh. We need to continue to do that in those most challenging areas.
A number of colleagues raised the subject of Nigeria, where we see civilians of all faiths, including many Muslims, suffer devastating harm at the hands of violent extremist groups and as a result of intercommunal violence and criminality. We remain committed to supporting Nigeria to address those root causes of violence, protect human rights and promote dialogue and respect between different ethnic and religious communities. We have continued to raise that with the Nigerian Government, including in the earliest meetings with the new Administration.
On Pakistan, many here will have heard the speech the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, my hon. Friend Leo Docherty, recently gave on our support to Ahmadi Muslims in Pakistan. As well as the recent discussions, Lord Ahmad also raised the treatment of marginalised communities with Pakistan’s Minister for Human Rights in January and June. He also wrote to Pakistan’s acting Foreign Minister, Jalil Abbas Jilani, urging the Government of Pakistan to ensure the safety of the Christian community following recent attacks in Jaranwala.
A number of colleagues cited violations happening much closer to home, even in Ukraine, as Putin with his brutal illegal war of aggression has weaponised orthodox Christianity. My hon. Friend Rehman Chishti raised an important issue around co-ordinated sanctions work among those in the alliance. I will take that away to look at how we might consider working on that internationally, as we have done with the Russia sanctions regime, which has been very effective in having that multilateral impact. Ruth Jones raised some important issues concerning refugees in Nepal and I will come back to her on that matter, as Nepal is a country in my portfolio where we do a lot of work. I will also provide more specific information on how we have used and are using our human rights sanctions with the countries raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham, which I hope will be useful.
Finally, I want to talk about embedding freedom of religion or belief in the work of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. We welcome the findings of the independent review of the Bishop of Truro’s report. The assessment concluded that the majority of the recommendations are now in an advanced stage of delivery, or actively being delivered. I hope we demonstrate through our multilateral and bilateral work that we are continuing to seek opportunities to ensure that freedom of religion or belief is central to wider human rights work, including through our global human rights sanctions regime.
Our efforts are supported by central programming via project funding, including our John Bunyan Fund and ROLE UK partnership that aims to support legislative reform to increase religious or belief protections. Religion for international engagement training is available to all civil servants, to enhance their understanding of the role of religion and belief in a wide variety of contexts, in order to deliver the UK’s international objectives more effectively. We continue to promote this and earlier this year we were pleased to welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton to a seminar for all Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office staff. I commend my hon Friend for convening country-focused roundtables on this topic, bringing together academic experts, civil society and British diplomats. I welcome the opportunity those forums provide to dig deep into some of the challenges we see around the world, and ponder the action we might take together to protect and promote freedom of religion or belief.
As envoy, my hon. Friend has a dedicated formal role. She has asked whether a specific Minister in the House of Commons might take responsibility for freedom of religion or belief. In a bicameral Parliament, of course, we have specific ministerial responsibilities that are split across both Houses. My noble friend Lord Ahmad established the FORB role prior to the Truro report, and I know that colleagues present agree that he does an incredibly good and passionate job as a proactive advocate for and a passionate believer in these principles; his work is now recognised and respected around the world. I also note my hon. Friend’s intention to seek a private Member’s Bill to make the special envoy role permanent. I know that she has spoken with the Foreign Secretary on the matter already, and I look forward to seeing how that progresses in the months ahead.
As a long-standing champion of human rights, the United Kingdom has a duty to promote and defend our values of equality, respect and democratic freedom at home and abroad, and I assure Members that this Government are doing just that. Through the channels available to us, we will continue to call out persecution and defend the right of freedom of religion or belief for all. Difficult and robust conversations happen at the highest levels every time Ministers travel, to ensure that the UK’s commitments to FORB and tolerance are clearly understood.
I thank all colleagues for contributing so excellently and informedly today, and I thank the Minister for her thoughtful response. Forgive me if I do not refer to all colleagues individually, but I want to mention the reference made by Ruth Jones to the need for a “better world” and the potential of religions to play a role in achieving that. Would it not be wonderful if we could move from a narrative of attitudes to religion being the cause of so many problems in the world to one of freedom of religion or belief being one of the answers to the world’s problems, as I believe it is?
To illustrate that, I close by presenting colleagues with two alternative futures for our consideration. The first is a world in which freedom of religion or belief is weak. Here there is an unbridled appetite for power. Domination is the goal. The strong succeed. The vulnerable are violated—physically, mentally, emotionally. Fear prevails. Minorities are despised, diversity deterred, assimilation enforced. Lives are wasted, as people are seen as a disposable means to an ideological end.
The second possible future is a world in which freedom of religion or belief is strong and respected. Here, people find ways to live together with their deepest differences. Choices for FORB can be freely made, and so many other freedoms flow from that foundational right: individual potential can flourish, safety and security are enhanced in local communities and internationally, the weak are strengthened and supported, poverty and inequality are reduced, minorities are respected, diversity is honoured, voices are given an opportunity to speak, and lives are fulfilled. Every person is afforded the inherent human dignity that is their due.
The choice between those two possible futures lies before us. Much depends on those of us in this room today.
Order. Before I put the Question, I ask Members leaving the debate to do so quickly and quietly, because we have an important debate coming up on South West Water, which we will go straight into.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered freedom of religion and belief.