Freedom of Religion and Belief in Nigeria — [Ian Paisley in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 6 February 2024.

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Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 9:30, 6 February 2024

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered freedom of religion and belief in Nigeria.

I thank the Backbench Business Committee for selecting the motion. This subject is close to my heart. I visited Nigeria the year before last with the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief. I declare an interest as chair of that group. We speak for those with Christian belief, those with other beliefs and those with no beliefs, because we genuinely believe, as I know you do, Mr Paisley, in the love that our God has for others and the importance of reaching out across the world, where many obscene, difficult and heartbreaking things are happening, to speak up for human rights and to be a voice for the voiceless—those who have no one to speak for them. We will try to put forward that voice in this House in a constructive and positive way.

The debate was requested, and the Backbench Business Committee agreed to it, primarily because, at Christmas last year, almost 200 Christians were murdered because of their beliefs. They were attacked, murdered and abused by Fulani tribesmen. Those who were able to do so fled into the forest. Their houses and churches were destroyed and their property was taken. Those events were massive and really worrying.

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton

I thank the hon. Member for bringing this subject to the House, and for all he does to ensure that the concerning situation of people who are persecuted and discriminated against because of their religion or beliefs is continuously highlighted in this place and in the country. Does he agree that when there are attacks like the one at Christmas in Plateau state, this Government ought to ensure that they, with others, bring immediate help and relief, and look to see how they can help with rehousing, for example, and meeting all the urgent and immediate needs of people who suffer such atrocities?

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I wholeheartedly agree. We need to be effective and probably urgent in our response. We have much faith in the Minister; I am sure that when he responds, he will give us some ideas about how that can be done better.

Ever mindful of Nigeria, on which we are focusing today—I referred earlier to the attacks before Christmas, my visit to the country and some of the lessons we learnt—it is frustrating and particularly worrying that, just over a year since we visited, things are no better. When we were there, campaigning was starting. We arrived in the early hours of the morning—I think it was about midnight or1 am—and wondered, as we went from the airport to our hotel, why there were crowds. I found out the reason when we got to the hotel, because a political document had been left on a chair: all the rallies were happening in the early hours of the morning. That was when we were hoping to see some change, but I understand that the elections have been postponed. We have great concerns about that.

The influence of people from Northern Ireland is always greater than people suspect. When I was leaving Nigeria, a young man came up to me in the airport and said in a Northern Irish accent, “Hello, Jim. How are you doing?” What are the chances of speaking to somebody with a Northern Irish accent at the airport after midnight in Nigeria? He turned out to have worked in the office of my right hon. Friend Sammy Wilson many moons ago; he was there as part of a lobbying and information group that was working on behalf of the opposition. The chances of having the change that we, and the Nigerians, all wish for have to be considered.

I am a well-known advocate for those who cannot speak out or who try to speak out but simply cannot be heard. Today is another opportunity to highlight the desperate daily battle that people face, seemingly without anyone knowing or understanding their plight. Today I seek to again speak out and draw attention to the horrific situation that exists for too many people throughout Nigeria at present.

Violations of FORB, along with broader discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief, are often particularly serious in situations of crisis, emergency and conflict, which exacerbate it. I think we can all agree that the world is in turmoil. The Bible says that there will be wars and rumours of wars. How true that is across the world at this moment, nowhere more so than throughout the African nations, particularly Nigeria. What happens in Nigeria will dictate what happens across all of Africa. With a population of almost 220 million, Nigeria is the cauldron for the rest of Africa. That middle band of Africa is awash with weapons, arms and people with evil intent. That concerns me.

Photo of Gregory Campbell Gregory Campbell Shadow DUP Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for securing this debate and for all the work he does in this area. Does he agree that some of the figures provided in preparation for this debate show a stark increase in the number of Christians being killed or abducted? Just four years ago, 3,600 Christians were killed per year, and now it is almost 5,000. The persecution is increasing. Thankfully, a number of us have tabled motions in the House on this issue—I tabled the most recent one, last week. That is what we need to do to highlight this issue and to get action, not just from our Government, but from Governments internationally.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to underline that point, and those stark figures illustrate it very well. Unfortunately, it seems to be the killing ground for those of an ethnic or religious minority background, particularly Christians.

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton

I spoke with a member of the Nigerian diaspora yesterday. He called what is happening, “a prolonged national nightmare of tragedy after tragedy,” as these attacks continue unabated and asked, “Who are supplying the AK47s and the rocket launchers to herders in the crisis-ridden middle belt? Who is sponsoring these wars and these crimes in Nigeria? Who are the international funders?” Is that not a question that all of us in this country should be asking, together with the international community, so that we can address this?

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

The hon. Lady again makes a very pertinent intervention, which illustrates the issue I referred to earlier. Nigeria and the middle belt of Africa are awash with weapons. We need to address those issues.

The ethnic nationalist groups fighting for greater power for ethnic Fulani people overwhelmingly target civilians with violence in northern Nigeria. In north central Nigerian, Christians represent the majority of victims of that violence. There was a recent attack, at Christmas, in which 200 Christians lost their lives. As parliamentarians, it is our duty to denounce and address such action against freedom of religion or belief, which is a basic human right. One young American lady said to me just last week that the United States has failed to address this situation—I understand that Fiona Bruce was in the States for a weekend, and I am sure she heard similar remarks. Just last week, that American lady urged me to ensure that we do not fail. We are having this debate today, and we will not fail when it comes to addressing the issues—those who are here will ensure that.

I am fully aware of the limitations of our Government’s ability to control the situation in Nigeria. But by the same token, I believe that there is more that we can and must do to make changes on the ground to get help and support to those who need it most, and simply to do what is right—it is right to do these things. In addition to the recent Christmas massacre, Islamic insurgent-directed Fulani gangs killed at least 10 Christians in Taraba state—another in a catalogue of murder—while a dozen similar gunmen kidnapped over 150 people in Zamfara state, and Boko Haram killed 15 rice farmers in Borno state. It seems to never end.

Those incidents serve to further escalate tensions in a country where violence divides people and erodes trust, threatening Nigerians’ freedom of religion or belief. Historically, violence in Nigeria has fallen along ethnic or religious lines. Violence by Boko Haram, the JAS— I will not try to pronounce the full name; you might understand if I said it in an Ulster Scots accent, Mr Paisley, but I suspect that no one else will—and Islamic State in West Africa threaten the freedom of religion or belief of Nigerians. Despite statements in favour of inter-faith unity, the Nigerian Government—I say this respectfully—have generally failed to enact meaningful policy reforms and changes to address the drivers of the violence impacting on religious freedom. I remember being outraged when I first heard about Boko Haram’s actions against women and children and the trafficking of those young girls. Even today, one young girl, Leah Sharibu, is still under the control of Boko Haram.

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton

Is it not correct that Leah Sharibu is still in captivity because she refused to renounce her Christian faith? Is it not also correct that while, for example, moderate Muslims and others suffer attacks, it appears that Christians in particular are being targeted? Churches are attacked during services, as Owo church was at Pentecost last year, and there was the attack at Christmas in Plateau state. It is a tragedy that, somewhere in the world, every two hours a Christian is killed, and that more than four fifths of those are in Nigeria.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

Again, I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention, and for her other contributions to this debate.

When we visited Nigeria, I remember well the stories we were told by some of the Christians who had been displaced. Those internally displaced peoples informed us that when they were being attacked, the police station was only about half a mile the other side, but while the attack was ongoing, there seemed to be no movement, unfortunately, by the police or the army to reach out and help. It is frustrating that we should have to record such incidents, where the Nigerian police and army have been unable or unwilling to respond when they should. It also annoys me that sometimes the media are silent. It is time for the media to highlight the increasing numbers of murders, atrocities, persecution and kidnappings of young people, as well as the murders of their mums, dads and grandparents.

In Nigeria, 12 northern states have adopted sharia law, even though the constitution recognises the right of freedom of religion or belief—in other words, a right to have a different religion, and not to be subject to another religion in any place. Christians, however, are charged in sharia courts, even though such courts have no jurisdiction over them according to the Nigerian constitution, and even though Christians’ evidence and their testimonies are worth half that of a Muslim. Will the Minister give us some idea of what discussions have taken place between the UK and Nigerian Governments about ensuring that sharia law, contrary to the constitution, does not take precedence over Christians and their beliefs across Nigeria?

A predominantly Muslim ethnic group, the Fulani, have also experienced significant persecution and statelessness across west Africa for several decades. As a primarily pastoralist community, the Fulani have experienced growing disenfranchisement in the country. The marginalisation stems from federal and state government preferences for developing agriculture and the livestock sector, on which the Fulani solely depend. There are other issues, especially ecological shocks from climate change and growing competition for resources. Government authorities have failed to curb the flow of weapons—the hon. Member for Congleton referred to that—or to protect pastoralists’ property from growing criminality.

We need a strong hand from the Nigerian Government, through their police and their army, to protect their people. What is the duty of our Government here, and of our Army and our Minister? It is to protect our people. I commend our Government for their stance; Nigeria and its people deserve the same.

Open Doors, a charity that I support prayerfully and practically and whose information I highly regard—others in this Chamber have the same opinion—has provided information about other religious minorities that are also being attacked and abducted by the majority groups. Followers of African traditional religions are subject to attacks and abductions in their hundreds—not just ones, twos, tens and twenties, but hundreds. Muslims who do not partake in militant attacks are also vulnerable to attack, because they do not participate.

When we were in Nigeria, we made the case clearly. We met many people of the Muslim faith who told us that they were as absolutely disgusted at what was happening against Christians as we were. We have to divorce those who are involved in terrorist campaigns from ordinary people who have a different faith but do not try to push it on to others.

In the north-west and north-central states, many Muslims have been killed, abducted or forced to flee their villages. Ethnic Shi’ites are banned in Nigeria—again, they deserve to have their faith and to worship their God in the way they wish—and it concerns me when I hear of such things happening.

The Government response to extreme violence against civilians has been insufficient to meet their obligations to ensure security and justice for victims. In the north-east, communities have alleged that Government security forces deliberately avoid responding to warnings of violence until after attacks have taken place. Even when they do respond, Christian civilians have reported that they respond with stronger force to alerts about impending violence against Muslim communities than to violence against Christian communities. That institutional bias must be addressed, as the hon. Member for Congleton said. It is clear that what people told me on my visit to Nigeria happens regularly, which is concerning, so I am keen to hear the Minister’s thoughts on that.

Due to the lack of a federal response, some state and local officials have called for civilians to take up arms and defend themselves. Although they do that with good intent—there is good reason to do it—the result is the militarisation of identity groups and an increase in the human rights abuses associated with poorly trained vigilante groups with little to no accountability, so that is not the best way of doing things. It is only right that there is Government enforcement; it is not up to individuals, paramilitary groups or church groups to carry out such actions, but they continue in the southern part of Nigeria.

What worries me is that a conflict that started in the north-east of Nigeria has moved into the centre, and is now moving south. In the south, the Igbo, a largely Christian ethnic group, have issues with political representation, given that the country’s quota system for state revenue distribution privileges the comparatively more populous north and south-west of the country. At the same time, more political, religious and human rights groups are the target of violence. It worries me that the Igbo, the largest ethnic group in the south, are being disadvantaged because they happen to be Christians. No group should be displaced or prevented from accessing aid, grants and advice for that reason.

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton

Several years ago, when I was in Nigeria, the UK Government sent some of our military personnel to work with the Nigerian security forces to address the issues causing the attacks by Boko Haram, but that did not stop them; indeed, as the hon. Gentleman said, the attacks have increased way beyond the northern part of Nigeria and now take place in the middle and even southern areas. What more can we do to assist the security forces? Working with others from the international community to do so is urgent.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I thank the hon. Lady for those words. We have a fantastic and incredibly important relationship with Nigeria; there are rich cultural, historical, economic and family connections between our two countries. When I was in Nigeria, I had the opportunity to speak to the British consulate, and the attaché, who was at some of those meetings, indicated that the United Kingdom Government were working closely with the Nigerian Government, but perhaps we have not seen enough of what could be done in a more tactical and advantageous way. One of the things we were told was that Nigeria was keen to have more helicopter support. The Minister is here to report from a human rights and religious point of view, but he has seen long and gallant service in the Army over many years, and he will understand the issue very clearly. I think we could do more, from a Ministry of Defence and Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office point of view, to help the Nigerian army to take on the terrorist groups.

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton

The hon. Member is being very generous to me in allowing interventions—I appreciate it greatly. I join him in acknowledging the Minister’s experience with regard to military matters. Is it not correct to say that it would not be simply an altruistic act for the UK to get involved in ensuring greater peace and security in Nigeria? It is also in all our interests, as it is in the world’s interest, because if young people in that huge country—Nigeria’s population is composed largely of young people—become disillusioned and disenchanted with their home country and seek to emigrate elsewhere across the world, denuding Nigeria of its young people and the skills they could be trained in, that would be an absolute tragedy for international peace and security, not just security in Nigeria.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

Again, I thank the hon. Lady for the intervention. In my introduction, I mentioned the fact that Nigeria has almost 220 million people, and it is clearly the cauldron for what happens in the whole of Africa—what happens in Nigeria will indicate what happens elsewhere. So the hon. Lady is right to re-emphasise the importance of dealing with terrorism and atrocities and dealing fairly and equitably with each and every person, of whatever faith, in Nigeria. Ensuring that their human rights are respected, that the aid gets to them and that they are secure, happy and safe in their homes is so important, because if that fails in Nigeria—this is what the hon. Lady is reminding us of—it fails for all of Africa. That is why this debate is so important and, as the hon. Lady said, so critical.

To refer back to the Igbo people in the south, armed separatists defending Igbo interests target Muslim civilians, based on ethnic or religious identity, and have also attacked individuals of various faiths travelling to worship and to celebrate holidays in the region. The FORB violations in Nigeria impact everyone in Nigeria; that is where we are—everybody is affected. What happens for the Christians will have an effect elsewhere. What happens with the Muslims will have an effect elsewhere as well.

In terms of FORB, even the judiciary are an area of concern—I have to underline this issue. In the past year, a sharia court sentenced Sheikh Abduljabbar Kabara to death for blasphemy, which is contrary to the constitution of Nigeria, as a sharia court should not have the power to do so. Other judicial authorities sentenced humanist leader Mubarak Bala to 24 years in prison for blasphemy and other charges. Mubarak Bala has been incarcerated since 28 April 2020. We used our visit to speak to some of the judiciary and judges in Nigeria and to make a case. David Linden will speak today for the Scots Nats. His hon. Friend Brendan O’Hara was in that delegation and made a very good case for the release of Mubarak. We thought we had made some headway on that, and the indications coming from the judiciary seemed to say that, but he is still in prison. I understand that he was given an option to leave the country, and his wife and child deserve to be able to be reunited with him, wherever that may be, in freedom. I said at the beginning of the debate that I speak up for those with a Christian faith, those with other faiths and those with no faith, and I mean that. The other members of the APPG mean it as well, and I think everyone in this room also means it. It is important to say that.

Additionally, a high court in Nigeria ruled that the blasphemy laws in the sharia penal codes are constitutional. In September, armed officers conducted a surprise raid on the presiding judge of the Kano court of appeal, who was the only judge who dissented from the ruling. Is there undue influence from the police and army on the judiciary? The question has to be asked. How impartial can those decisions be?

The Nigerian Government have failed to address the drivers of this violence and to prioritise justice for its victims. We must take action to address the systematic, ongoing and egregious violations of religious freedom and human rights. The failures are clear. The Minister and his officials must think that I believe they have a magic wand. If only we all had a magic wand, imagine what we could do to fix things. I do not think they do have a magic wand, but I do think we can use our influence economically, culturally, historically and through families, because of the rich bond that is shared between Nigeria and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. I know that there are limitations, but I do not believe that we are on the cusp of the limits; I believe that there is more engagement that can and should take place. When the Minister responds and tells us what has been done by the United Kingdom Government, I would be glad to hear that we are heading in a positive direction.

I believe that more on-the-ground missionaries could get involved. I have many in my constituency; in almost every church there are missionaries with contacts across the world, including in Kenya, Uganda, Egypt, Nigeria—in large numbers—Swaziland and South Africa. I make that point because there is a non-governmental workforce that could be used as part of the Government network. I have suggested before that missionary groups are there for one purpose: not to be political or to change the direction or focus of the Government, but to help people. I think they could be part of the network that we have in the UK. I know that there may be a sense of, “What else can we be asking for?” when Members see my name next to a debate, but lives are in the balance. There are people in Nigeria who I will never meet in this world, but hopefully we will meet in the next. The innocence of children is at stake, and I believe we have more to give.

When I used to get tired at home and feel like there was nothing left to give, I would recall a biblical verse that my mum ingrained in me. I mentioned in the main Chamber yesterday that my mum got me a bank account when I was 16 and got me my pension when I was 18. She is a lady of great influence. She is the same height as the hon. Member for Congleton—about 5 feet 6 inches— and I am over 6 feet. I get the height from my dad, not my mum. My mum ingrained in me a thought that comes to mind.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

Very wise. We are always glad if we have a wise mum.

One thought comes to mind, and I will leave it with the ministerial team today. Galatians 6:9 says:

“And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.”

This debate is all about not giving up. It is about continuing to reach out and help those in Nigeria, and there is much more to be done.

I ask the Minister and his team to partner with us, with the spokesperson for the SNP, the hon. Member for Glasgow East, who is a dear friend of mine and has been since the day he came to the House, and with the shadow Minister, Ms Brown. When I told her some weeks ago that we would be having a debate on Nigeria, she said, “Jim, I’ll have to get up early to get here.” She has honoured that promise and is here to speak up for Nigerians. We are all here for that purpose. We are here to make a difference and to know that we have done the best we can for people, without ever giving up.

Photo of David Linden David Linden Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Social Justice) 9:58, 6 February 2024

It is, as ever, a great pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Paisley, and to serve under your chairmanship. I genuinely and most sincerely thank Jim Shannon for securing the debate. The reality is that if there is any debate on freedom of religion or belief, you can bet your bottom dollar that the hon. Members for Strangford and for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) will be tag-teaming. I do not say that to be flippant; I say it in genuine appreciation of the fact that they have really put their passion into this issue. Arguably, they are using their gifts to advocate in this place, as the hon. Member for Strangford says, for people who cannot speak for themselves.

I welcome the opportunity to focus specifically on Nigeria. Like the hon. Member for Congleton, I put on record my concern about the plight of Leah Sharibu. I have done some work with Christian Solidarity Worldwide in advocating for her over the years. This is not something I take great pleasure in, but every year we go to the Nigerian embassy in London on Leah’s birthday, which happens to coincide with mine. There is no way that we want to be marking these birthdays while she is being held in captivity. I thank the hon. Lady for putting Leah’s case on the record again.

Nigeria is characterised by its tapestry of rich religious, ethnic and cultural diversity and is home to almost 103 million Christians, but its once celebrated diversity has in recent times been marred by accounts of persecution, discrimination and human rights violations. As the hon. the Member for Strangford pointed out, Christians are confronted with a brutal reality for practising their invaluable human right of religious freedom, particularly in the Muslim-majority north of the country. Instances of mob killings, forced conversion to Islam, violence, extremism, kidnappings and targeted attacks on Christians have tragically become commonplace. Houses of worship, schools and communities have become battlegrounds, leading to devastation and destruction.

All the while, various arms and tiers of the Government have displayed sheer complacency and inaction in securing the very basic safety of Christians and other religious minorities in Nigeria. That slow, unsustainable and unyielding reaction emboldens extremist groups such as Boko Haram and Fulani militants to wage insurgencies on defenceless Christian communities in northern and middle-belt regions.

As our Christian brothers and sisters find themselves caught in the crossfire of ethnic and religious tensions, extremist ideologies, religious polarisation and conflicts have cultivated a climate of fear and insecurity, forcing many to flee their homes and abandon places of worship and communities that they have held dear for generations. It is crucial for us to acknowledge the suffering of our fellow Christians, work collectively to address those injustices, and, as the hon. Member for Strangford said, speak out for those who cannot speak.

As the hon. the Member for Strangford highlighted, the recent launch of the Open Doors 2024 world watch list sees Nigeria ranking sixth against the shocking backdrop of more Christians being killed in Nigeria than everywhere else in the world combined. This year’s research highlights that the hostility that Christians face has intensified; 90% of 4,998 Christians killed in 2023 were Nigerian.

Following a devastating year for Christians, many were looking forward to a peaceful Christmas celebration with loved ones as we celebrated the birth of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, but instead they found themselves brutalised once again. I wholeheartedly echo Members’ condemnation of the abhorrent massacre of civilians that took place on Christmas eve 2023 at the hands of Fulani Islamic extremists.

The Nigerian Government’s failure to protect Christians during the most holy period resulted in 295 Christians being killed, more than 1,500 homes burned, eight churches burned, and 30,000 people displaced, according to Barnabas Aid. Those horrendous acts of persecution not only violate the fundamental right to freedom of religion enshrined in article 18 of the UN declaration of human rights, but undermine the fabric of our society if we simply turn a blind eye to such injustice.

“Come to our rescue” and “We cannot even mourn in peace” are just a couple of the calls for peace written on posters held by mourning peace marchers in the wake of the deadly attack. It is incumbent on us while we are here in Parliament to continue to demand that those unprovoked attacks stop and that the peace marchers’ calls are not brushed to the sidelines.

I commend the work of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, which I referenced earlier, in collecting the personal testimonies of those murdered, the survivors who managed to escape the carnage of the attacks, and many others. The stories paint a poignant reminder that while we debate here today in the Palace of Westminster, 365 million Christians worldwide face persecution for simply having the temerity to follow the teachings of Christ. That is why the UK Government must ensure that there are safe and legal routes for refugees fleeing to the UK due to religious persecution and human rights concerns instead of criminalising them.

I cannot let this morning go by without acknowledging the frankly grotesque scenes last night of the Prime Minister placing a bet on live national television with what can only be described as a questionable journalist, making light of the plight of refugees and bargaining cash on whether they can be deported to Rwanda. The very people that we have turned up to discuss in this place—people fleeing religious persecution—could be the types of people put on the planes subject to a bet by the Prime Minister. I do not make any apology for calling that out, because I would do so if it were somebody in my own party.

Listening to the hon. Member for Strangford outline the complex array of challenges faced by Nigeria, from security threats from extremists to farmer and herder conflicts, solidifies why I believe the British Government must reinstate its international obligation to spend 0.7% of the UK’s GNI on official development assistance. I will be frank: if the UK can afford to find money—roughly £1 million a go—to launch arms into the Red sea, surely we can also find money for development. It is concerning that the UK Government are reducing official development aid to Nigeria by 19.85% for 2023-24 in the face of a blatant rise in violence against Christians and religious minorities. Given everything that I have outlined, there is no doubt that the relationship with Nigeria is complex, but the decision to reduce ODA, which is targeted at some of the most vulnerable people, must be revisited.

Despite their constrained resources, my colleagues in Holyrood, the Scottish Government, are supporting projects to tackle the effects of climate change, such as religious hostilities over resources in northern Nigeria, for example through a £3 million climate justice fund—all while, I say humbly to the Minister, the Government continually refuse to recognise their role in protecting religious minorities and freedom of religion across the world. A lot of good work was done under the previous Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt. However, notwithstanding the wonderful work done by the hon. Member for Congleton, I am concerned that the focus of the Government at Foreign Secretary level could be better on that front.

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton

I am listening very carefully to everything the hon. Gentleman is saying. I know that he feels very sincerely about the issue of freedom of religion or belief and the persecuted across the world. However, I do not think it would be out of turn to put on record that I have had a conversation about this very issue with the Foreign Secretary, Lord Cameron, and I believe that he personally shares our concerns about those who are persecuted or discriminated against because of their religion or beliefs across the world. It is a priority for him.

Photo of David Linden David Linden Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Social Justice)

I am genuinely not seeking to quarrel or have a debate about that. If that is the case, I am very glad to hear it. The only thing I will say is that I would like to see His Majesty’s Government implement that view across all Departments. Certainly, as an MP who does quite a lot of Home Office casework, I find that there are far too many occasions when my constituents who are seeking refuge or asylum in the UK based on religious persecution are put through the most intolerable hoops. So that is a view I would like to see shared a bit more across Government.

With all that in mind, let us not remain silent spectators of the suffering of our fellow Christians. Let us work towards fostering a society where religious freedom is not simply a principle that we debate in this place, but a lived reality for Nigerians, and indeed every person of faith, or no faith at all, across this land.

Again, I thank the hon. Member for Strangford for giving us the opportunity to allow the Minister, and indeed this House, to refocus on the plight of religious freedom.

Photo of Lyn Brown Lyn Brown Shadow Minister (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs) 10:09, 6 February 2024

It is a genuine pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Paisley. I thank Jim Shannon for securing the debate. He is, as ever, a devoted campaigner for freedom of religion or belief around the world, and I sincerely thank him for that. I am grateful to him for recognising the complexities of the situation, including the marginalisation of Fulani communities, the role of climate change and the need to tackle the flow of weapons. We need to collectively consider all those issues. I also agree that our influence rightly has limits, but I believe that there is more we can do within our partnership with Nigeria, and I will address that in my speech.

As we know, Nigeria is a country of rich diversity, with more than 500 languages, over 300 ethnic groups and a massive range of different churches and branches of Islam. Our connection with Nigeria benefits enormously from our diaspora communities, which, as we know, include British Nigerians of all faiths and backgrounds. It is right to say that at the beginning of my speech, because it provides the context for where we want to go. However, against that background of co-existence and flourishing diversity, there have been many appalling violations of freedom of religion and belief. They include attacks on Christian communities, priests and churches. We must continue to remember the utterly horrifying attack on St Francis Xavier Church in Ondo state two years back, when 41 innocent worshippers were murdered during the Pentecost mass. We continue to stand with the survivors and with that devastated community. I ask the Minister how the Government are engaging with the Nigerian authorities to help ensure justice for that attack, because it must not be forgotten.

The hon. Member rightly highlighted the terrible killings in Plateau state in December. Amnesty International Nigeria reports that over 140 people were killed across 20 villages in just 48 hours. That is truly appalling. Others reported that several churches were burned alongside many homes, and there is speculation that the attacks were a form of indiscriminate reprisal by local herders for cattle rustling and village burnings that had started the previous day. The scale of it is simply horrifying. Is the Minister aware of any progress following the Government’s engagement with the authorities on this issue? We should not rely on speculation. There is a genuine need for a full and impartial investigation of those attacks, and we must see action to prevent those horrors from being repeated, as they have been in recent years.

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton

The hon. Lady makes an excellent point. Is it not right that unless endeavours are made to bring to account those involved in such atrocities, impunity is fostered, and that means more attacks can occur?

Photo of Lyn Brown Lyn Brown Shadow Minister (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs)

I agree with the hon. Lady, as I often do. It is about ensuring that there is no impunity for attacks of that nature. It only fosters, as she rightly says, impunity for future actions.

As we know, there is also a huge continuing threat from jihadist terrorist groups, such as Boko Haram and Islamic State West Africa Province, and we must continue to support Nigeria in its fight against those groups. Terrible violence and insecurity in large parts of Nigeria continue to affect millions of Nigerian people of all faiths. I hope that we can agree here today that narratives about religious wars are not accurate, because I honestly worry that that kind of narrative risks making the situation even worse.

I would like to draw hon. Members’ attention to the perspective of Archbishop Ndagoso, of the Catholic archdiocese of Kaduna in north-west Nigeria. He said:

“In the northwest the farmers are mostly Muslims, and they also have conflicts with the Fulani. As you move to the middle belt, it is inhabited mostly by Christians, so there it will most likely be a Christian farm. Religion and ethnicity are very sensitive problems in Nigeria, they are always used for convenience, but primarily this conflict is not religious, I am absolutely sure.”

The archbishop went on to say that opportunists

“use these factors to their own advantage, but if you go to the root, you discover it is little or nothing to do with religion.”

The archbishop, like many in Nigeria, is absolutely focused on the desperate insecurity affecting his parishioners. In the same interview, he was understandably very critical of the Nigerian Government and of us in the west. He was, rightly, very clear about the many forms of legal and administrative discrimination that Christian organisations face in his state, and others in northern Nigeria. His is an expert perspective that we should consider.

In 2022, the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data project found that while, as we know, attacks on Christians had significantly increased, only 5% of the attacks on civilians were specifically targeting Christians based on the fact that they were Christians. However, I know that we in this Chamber will agree that even a 5% increase is far too great.

It is a simple fact that the extremist groups exploiting and victimising large areas of Nigeria kill and destroy the livelihoods of Christian and Muslim communities alike. We must call out targeted attacks against Christians, and we need a holistic approach to insecurity. We need to provide solidarity with all communities, because Nigerian communities of all faiths and ethnicities depend on the Nigerian state; and where there are failures, we need to support our Nigerian friends in addressing them.

When communities do not have access to state services, including access to justice that resolves and redresses grievances, it fuels vigilantes, bandits and revenge attacks. It creates a sense of abandonment and discrimination, which is fertile ground for the recruitment narratives of terrorists. When young people have no decent access to jobs, and families are without education for their children or food to keep them from going hungry, there is a push towards alternative economic models, such as crime. It is the same the world over, but in Nigeria, that might include kidnapping for ransom, livestock rustling, or, appallingly, even recruitment into the terrorist groups that continue to wreak such utter carnage on innocent communities.

I know that some colleagues may disagree, but many experts and international organisations are clear that climate change plays a role in this conflict. The African Union, the International Crisis Group, the World Bank and others believe that to be true. When grazing land becomes scarce, it drives herders to migrate. They, in turn, push into settled communities, and atrocities can result. We see similar stories happening right across the Sahel and beyond—from Mali to the Lake Chad basin, from South Sudan to north-west Kenya. Those conflicts are, sadly, nothing new, but they have become more and more intense.

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton

I do not think any of us deny that climate change is one of the causes of the sad situation that we are discussing, but one of the problems is that extremist groups are hijacking the issue and fuelling the violence. As we have said, they bring in arms and other materials to do that. Those groups have their own extremist agenda, and they are taking advantage of all those involved who are struggling, often at subsistence level, in Nigeria. The international community needs to address this issue with greater alertness and urgency.

Photo of Lyn Brown Lyn Brown Shadow Minister (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs)

I agree. The impact of a changing climate is not a simple issue of cause and effect; it is about poverty and destitution.

I can understand the anxiety about states in Nigeria continuing to imprison people for exercising religious freedoms. We all know the case of Mubarak Bala—we have spoken about that in this place, with the same audience—but there are others imprisoned in Nigeria on blasphemy charges. We cannot just respond to insecurity and terrorism by calling out individual human rights abuses. We need to provide practical support to prevent further atrocities. Regardless of whether religious motivations have helped to cause an attack, I believe that we can absolutely support religious organisations to provide solutions.

I hope that the Minister will tell us much more today about how the Government are engaging with all communities of faith in Nigeria to support peace building; how we are encouraging interfaith work that creates trust and understanding; and how we are engaging with religious leaders to support their communities to adapt to more climate-resilient methods of agriculture and ways of living. How are we supporting the early warning systems and civil society networks that can help communities to de-escalate when a conflict becomes likely? How can we support the programmes of the federal Government or individual states that would aid that agenda? Are we offering support to the efforts of Nigeria and the Economic Community of West African States in tackling the spread of weapons, which make these conflicts so appallingly deadly?

I hope colleagues will forgive me if I finish on a much more positive note. In much of Nigeria, people of different faiths and none are living side by side in peace. That is utterly normal, and it simply goes without saying. Interfaith marriages are common. We should not lose sight of this. I worry that an image of Nigeria is emerging that is scarcely recognisable to many Nigerians, because it does not reflect the dynamism, the inter-mixing, the excitement, energy and opportunity of Nigeria today. I believe that to support protections for all Nigerians, including those of freedom of religion or belief, we need to engage with those opportunities, deepening our partnership with Nigeria for our mutual benefit.

Photo of Leo Docherty Leo Docherty Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) 10:23, 6 February 2024

It is a great pleasure to be here this morning, Mr Paisley, and I am grateful to Jim Shannon for securing this debate. I know colleagues will join me in commending him for his long-standing commitment to freedom of religion or belief, especially with regard to Nigeria. His sincerity and passion are of note and are much appreciated.

I am here on behalf of the Minister for Africa, my right hon. Friend Mr Mitchell, who takes a great interest in this issue in the context of the continent, but is engaged in duties elsewhere. It is my great pleasure to be here and I aim to cover off all the points raised. I am grateful for the contributions; it has been a sincere and passionate debate. I am particularly pleased that the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief, my hon. Friend Fiona Bruce, is also here contributing.

We are united in horror at the scale and ferocity of attacks against religious groups in Nigeria, which were shockingly described by the hon. Member for Strangford. Of course, particularly in our minds is the massacre of Christians at St Francis Xavier Church, and we continue to press the Nigerian Government for justice to be done in that case.

The hon. Member for Strangford referred to Open Doors, and its report paints a very harrowing picture. More than 4,000 Christians were killed in Nigeria last year alone. It is our firm conviction that every Nigerian should be able to practise their faith and it is the constitutional obligation of the Nigerian Government to ensure that all Nigerians should be able to practise their faith or belief in safety, free from fear and persecution. I commend the dedication shown by Members in this Chamber and across the House, and I will use this opportunity to lay out some of the actions that the Government are taking.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I know that the Minister will come back to this point, but one of the issues that Fiona Bruce and I highlighted was the effect of sharia law, which has been introduced in some Nigerian states. It discriminates against those who are of a Christian belief. Even though it is not in the constitution, it has been introduced and some people have borne the brunt of the law on blasphemy, including through attacks and judges being influenced. Perhaps the Minister can address that issue, because the constitution says that all religions are equal, but there is something wrong when sharia law is able to tell Christians what they should do.

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

The hon. Gentleman is correct: the constitutional obligation of the Nigerian Government is to ensure, at federal level and state level, that Nigerians are free to practise their religion. Through our high commissioner, we continue to make that case to our partners in Nigeria, for the settled benefit of constitutional affairs and religious freedom in the country.

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton

I am very pleased to hear the Minister speak about the high commission raising cases. Will he ask UK diplomats in Nigeria to raise, in particular, the case of Yahaya Sharif-Aminu, the 19-year-old Sufi Muslim who wrote a song that he sent to a friend on WhatsApp, which the friend then circulated. As a result, Yahaya was arrested in Kano state, charged and there was a court hearing. He had no legal representation and because he was found guilty of blasphemy, he was sentenced to death by hanging.

Fortunately, Yahaya’s case came to the attention of members of the international community who are concerned about freedom of religion or belief and a lawyer has now been found for him. I met that young lawyer twice in the last year, but the fact is, unfortunately, that when an appeal was made to the Court of Appeal, Yahaya lost. The case is now going to the Supreme Court in Nigeria. This is a very important case, because blasphemy should not be an offence and it certainly should not be subject to the death penalty. Will the Minister ask our representatives in Nigeria to advocate on Yahaya’s behalf as he awaits the date for the Supreme Court hearing?

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

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that case, which is one of gravity and importance. I will ask the Minister for Africa, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield, to write with an update on the representations that we are making through our high commissioner in Abuja.

The UK Government are committed to supporting Nigeria to end faith-based persecution and violence, and to uphold its constitutional commitment to religious freedom for all, as we have discussed. This is a long-standing priority in our partnership with Nigeria. The British high commissioner and his team in Nigeria work closely with local authorities, communities and faith leaders to address these issues, which include wider inter-communal violence and insecurity that exacerbate the threats to religious groups. Some of those trends have been discussed very usefully this morning.

We regularly raise these issues at the highest level. Last July, the British high commissioner raised the report by the all-party group for international freedom of religion or belief, which was entitled, “Nigeria: Unfolding Genocide? Three Years On”, with the Nigerian President’s chief of staff. In August 2023, the former Foreign Secretary discussed insecurity with President Tinubu and the Nigerian national security adviser. Most recently, the British high commissioner has raised the attacks in Plateau state with the national security adviser and discussed solutions to intercommunal conflict and insecurity.

In all those meetings, we have reiterated the need to uphold the security of all communities affected by violence and to bring perpetrators to justice. We continue to underline our commitment to supporting the Nigerian Government in tackling these persistent security issues.

Meanwhile, we are working to advance freedom of religion or belief through our work on the world stage. I am very pleased that the Prime Minister’s special envoy, my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton, is here today; she remains closely involved in the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance, a network of countries including the UK that are dedicated to protecting and promoting freedom of religion or belief for all.

The United Nations Human Rights Council undertook its universal periodic review of Nigeria last month. The UK Government were an active participant in that process, and we remain committed to protecting all human rights, including freedom of religion or belief. It is important to recognise the complex factors that increase insecurity between communities, which have been laid out in this morning’s passionate debate. Religious belief is one such factor; others include economic disenfranchisement, historical grievances and natural resources.

We should remember that this insecurity in Nigeria is deadly both for Christians and for Muslims. We should also remember that intercommunal violence and criminal banditry are a significant factor causing a rising death toll and therefore increasing tensions between communities across Nigeria. These grievances are very easily tied to a community’s religious or ethnic identities, which are of course closely associated in Nigeria; conflicts can therefore take on a religious dimension as tensions build between communities and reprisal attacks take place. I am very grateful to the Opposition spokesperson, Ms Brown, for elegantly laying out the complex set of factors that often escalate economic or geographic conflicts into conflicts of a religious nature.

The hon. Members for West Ham and for Strangford asked about our support more broadly. The UK is supporting peace and resilience in Nigeria through a new £38 million programme that aims to tackle the interlinked causes of intercommunal conflict, including security, justice and natural resource management challenges. That is even more important in the context of climate change and grave water shortage: it will help farmers to access and collect water more efficiently and to provide better routes for livestock. Together, we expect that our support will help 1.5 million women and men to benefit from reduced violence in their communities and will help 300,000 people to better adapt to the increasingly pernicious effects of climate change.

The FCDO has also funded peace-building projects in Kaduna, Plateau, Niger and Benue states that aim to promote tolerance and understanding between communities affected by intercommunal violence. Those projects have included work to train peace ambassadors, including faith leaders, to engage with young people—the vast majority of the population, as was raised in the debate—who are at risk of becoming radicalised.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I referred to the many missionary organisations and NGOs that are involved. Nearly every church in my constituency has a connection with a missionary somewhere in Africa. I recognise the great influence and help that those partnerships with NGOs and missionaries could be. Although I am ever mindful that the Minister is not the Minister responsible for this area, I feel that more should be made of that. It would be to the benefit of everyone. It is a great source of talent and a great group of people: people of commitment, energy and faith who could work alongside the Government in a partnership that could deliver.

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

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that point. We note the tremendous positive energy of the various church groups. I am sure that the high commissioner and the team take good account and make good use of those connections in their interfaith work. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has put that on the record.

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton

I really appreciate the Minister taking these interventions. Will he refer to the high commission the atrocity that took place at Owo on Pentecost well over a year ago? Aid to the Church in Need, one of the excellent NGOs to which Jim Shannon will no doubt refer, has repeatedly asked for help for those who suffered as a result of that atrocity. On Red Wednesday, I brought Margaret Attah and her husband Dominic to the House. She lost an eye and two legs in that attack. Aid to the Church in Need and other Church representatives are asking for help for those who were injured in that attack. I agree that strategic structural help is important in peace building —when I was out there, I met some of the young women who are being worked with in order to engage with local communities—but there is also a need to give immediate support to those who suffer such atrocities.

Photo of Ian Paisley Jnr Ian Paisley Jnr Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

Order. The hon. Lady has made numerous substantial and detailed interventions— I have lost count now. I think the House would have benefited from a speech from her, as opposed to a series of interventions; I encourage her to bring us a speech next time because of her detailed knowledge of what she is presenting to the House.

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

I am very pleased to say that as a consequence of this debate we will ensure that our high commissioner is made aware, if he is not already, of Aid to the Church in Need’s perspective and requirements. I am happy to make that commitment.

I turn to violent attacks by Boko Haram and Islamic State in West Africa Province, predominantly in north-east Nigeria and the Lake Chad basin, against those who do not subscribe to their extremist ideologies. The region’s predominantly Muslim populations have borne the brunt of the insurgency, but those groups have also targeted Christians, including through the large-scale abduction of women and children. We of course unequivocally condemn those acts. This has been an absolute saga of tragedy. Colleagues mentioned Leah Sharibu, who, following her abduction, remains in captivity. We continue to raise her case with the Nigerian Government, and we have called for her release and the release of those who continue to be held by terrorists. That case continues to concern us all.

We are a leading provider of lifesaving humanitarian assistance to support Nigerians affected by this conflict. Since 2022, we have contributed £66.8 million to the humanitarian response in north-east Nigeria, including providing food and cash assistance to more than 600,000 people, including religious groups, and helping more than 1 million children with lifesaving nutrition services. That is in the context of our bilateral ODA contribution to Nigeria over the past 10 years of some £2.4 billion. Our contribution is substantial and has a very significant practical impact.

For religious tolerance to flourish, we must also tackle insecurity and close the space for criminals and extremists to operate. During our annual security and defence partnership dialogue with Nigeria this week, which colleagues raised, we will discuss strengthening our practical support to defend Nigeria against such threats. In that dialogue, we will consider what more the partnership can do in the pure security context to advance these issues.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I had the same conversations with the British consulate in Nigeria. In response to an intervention from Fiona Bruce, I referred to a request for more helicopter support for the Nigerian army, which indicated that that would help it in the battle against terrorists, although I know that it must do a lot more than that. I am mindful that this is not the Minister’s responsibility, but will he have those discussions with the relevant Minister to ensure that we consider any military assistance, such as helicopters, that can be given to Nigeria?

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

The focus is currently on training police and working with local communities, but I know that the defence partnership dialogue will consider exactly that. I am happy to give the hon. Gentleman a commitment that I will pass on that suggestion to my Ministry of Defence colleague.

The security work builds on our work as a partner in the multinational joint taskforce, which has seized weapons intended for use against civilians in Nigeria. However, the ongoing work is hugely important, because disrupting the flow of weapons is a critical security factor. The UK Government will continue to work closely with the Nigerian authorities to address the deeply troubling violence against those who are simply trying to follow their faith, including by raising faith-based violence and wider insecurity at the highest levels and with country-based partners and the wider international community to promote a more secure and stable Nigeria in which everyone is free to follow their faith or belief without fear of persecution or violence.

Once again, I thank hon. Members for this debate. I am grateful that my friend the hon. Member for Strangford quoted from Galatians 6:9:

“Let us not become weary in doing good”.

He is certainly not weary, and our team in Nigeria is not weary. Despite the many challenges and the huge scale of the threat, we are confident that our actions have a positive impact. I am grateful to have laid out this morning some of the actions that we are taking, but a great deal of work is ahead of us.

Photo of Ian Paisley Jnr Ian Paisley Jnr Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

With that benediction, Minister, I ask the hon. Member for Strangford to wind up for a couple of minutes.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 10:41, 6 February 2024

May I thank everyone for their participation, their conviction, their contributions and their words of wisdom? I began by saying that we were here to speak up and be a voice for the voiceless, and I think Members of all parties have done so in this Chamber today. It has been a very positive debate. I hope that those in Nigeria—my brothers and sisters in the Lord, and those of other faiths—can take some encouragement from our conviction.

My hon. Friend Mr Campbell referred to the increasing numbers of attacks. The stats from the Library and from Open Doors, Aid to the Church in Need, Release International and other groups indicate that Nigeria is sixth in the world watchlist, which indicates the severity of the crimes.

David Linden said that our being here is a matter not just of principle, but of conviction. He is right, and I know that that is how he feels in his heart. He delivered that message well. He also referred to how Christians are attacked and how their houses, homes and churches have become a battleground. We have to address that.

If you do not mind my saying so, Mr Paisley, I think that the interventions from Fiona Bruce helped to cultivate the debate at each stage. I thank her for that, and I congratulate her on getting a Bill through Parliament to establish in law the position of the special envoy, under all Governments. That is a really big thing—well done to her. I thank her for everything that she has done to establish a special envoy permanently, and for all her interventions.

I was pleased to hear that Ms Brown would be speaking in this debate, because I knew that her contribution would be really on the ball. She referred to the 41 people killed in the Pentecostal mass some two years ago. Justice is needed; the hon. Member for Congleton reinforced that point, and I think the Minister tried to do so. Progress is needed on justice and accountability, and there should be no impunity for anyone. The hon. Member for West Ham also referred to the insecurity of the territory. She always makes a helpful contribution to these debates.

I know that this issue is not in the Minister’s portfolio, but he always encapsulates and appreciates the points of view put forward. He answered clearly on the issues that are important: preventing the persecution of Christians, protecting their freedom to worship and bringing perpetrators to justice. He referred to the peace ambassadors and how religious tolerance must flourish. That is what we wish to see: a Nigeria where everyone can follow their faith.

The Minister said, “Let us not be weary.” We are not wearying, because this is the right thing to do: we have a duty in this House and further afield to stand up for our brothers and sisters and for those of all faiths around the world. What a privilege it is to do so today in this Chamber with purpose and conviction, and to have a Minister who responds positively.

Photo of Ian Paisley Jnr Ian Paisley Jnr Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

I thank colleagues for their detailed contributions to a very important debate.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House
has considered freedom of religion and belief in Nigeria.

Sitting suspended.