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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:58 am on 6 February 2024.

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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.