Yesterday I led a debate in the House of Commons against the persecution of Christians overseas. Around 80% of religious persecution around the world is directed against Christians, and it’s important that we do more to stop this.
You can read my speech in full below, and also read the full debate here: https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2019-07-18/debates/67C97979-3C43-4C65-A353-0007F07CFD63/PersecutionOfChristiansOverseas#contribution-B81E1BBA-8EA7-4F0B-B9C2-C4528AEFB8EE
I beg to move,
That this House deplores the persecution of Christians overseas; supports freedom of religion or belief in all countries throughout the world; welcomes the work undertaken by the Bishop of Truro in this area; and calls on the Government to do more with the diplomatic and other tools at its disposal to prevail on the governments of countries in which persecution of Christians is tolerated or encouraged to end that persecution and to protect the right to freedom of religion or belief.
I thank, especially, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden), for their work in securing the debate. I congratulate the Bishop of Truro on his report, which was published 10 days ago. I also thank Open Doors and Aid to the Church in Need for their tireless work on this issue.
Around the world, there are horrifying stories of Christians being attacked and often killed, of churches being destroyed, and of Christians being persecuted and prevented from worshipping. This is happening on an industrial scale in multiple countries. Often, the Governments in those countries turn a blind eye, or are even responsible for the persecution themselves. Christianity is the most persecuted religion in the world. The International Society of Human Rights says that 80% of religious persecution in the world is against Christians. Open Doors estimates that 245 million Christians around the world—one in nine—face persecution. Here are some examples.
In April 2017, a young Nigerian woman, Dorkas Zakka, was murdered, along with 12 others, simply for attending an Easter mass. Local priest Father Alexander Yeycock said that Nigerian military units stood by and did nothing while the murders took place. In November 2017, in Mina, Egypt, a mob surrounded a Coptic church threatening worshippers inside, many of whom were also physically attacked. Local Coptic leader Anba Macarius said that the Egyptian authorities had done nothing to bring those responsible to justice.
The hon. Gentleman is describing very accurately what is happening to Christians across the world. Given the involvement of the authorities in the two countries that he has mentioned, and in many other countries—countries to which we give considerable aid in the form of money, expert advice and so on—does he believe that the Government could put more pressure on them by withdrawing that aid, or at least threatening to do so?
Yes, I completely agree with that point and will discuss it shortly. We give lots of money to countries where the Governments themselves are turning a blind eye to, or even themselves actively encouraging or carrying out, persecution, and we should be attaching conditions to the aid we give and in extreme cases even withdrawing it entirely; I therefore agree completely with the point that the right hon. Gentleman makes.
In Pakistan, Christian woman Asia Bibi was sentenced to death for blasphemy in 2010. She is now in safety in Canada, but the very cell in which she was incarcerated now holds Shagufta Kausar, a Christian 45-year-old mother of four who was sentenced to death for blasphemy in 2014; the very cell that Asia Bibi was held in now contains another Christian woman, also under sentence of death.
I welcome what my hon. Friend is saying. He mentioned the issue of Asia Bibi and Pakistan. Many in this House have said from the very beginning of that case that Asia was being persecuted for her faith and that countries around the world, in line with their religious belief and commitment, should have offered her asylum. The United Kingdom should have done that; we did not. Does my hon. Friend agree that after this report our foreign policy must change, so that rather than hiving off our responsibility on religious freedom to Canada and other countries, we should offer asylum to those being persecuted like Asia Bibi?
That is a question that requires very serious consideration, and of course there are many persecuted Christians from countries such as Iraq and Syria who might wish to seek asylum as well.
Last year, again in Pakistan, Suneel Saleem was beaten to death by a group of doctors—a group of doctors—in the Services hospital in Lahore when he protested about the anti-Christian abuse his heavily pregnant sister had suffered at the hospital. The US State Department says that the Pakistani Government themselves have
“engaged in or tolerated systematic, ongoing and egregious violations of religious freedom”.
Yet, just a few weeks ago Pakistan’s Foreign Minister speaking in Brussels dismissed concerns as being “whipped up” by “western interests.” His attitude is not acceptable, especially bearing in mind that the UK Government send £463 million a year in aid to Pakistan—it is the single biggest recipient of UK overseas aid, but we do not attach conditions about ending persecution of religious minorities.
The litany of persecution goes on. In May 2017 two churches in Sudan were destroyed on the orders of the Government. In June 2017 some 33 Christian women in Eritrea were imprisoned by the Eritrean Government simply for taking part in prayer. And in India, 24,000 Christians were physically assaulted last year. Prime Minister Modi dismissed that as “imaginary fears”; he is wrong and we should say so.
The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent speech on a very important issue. Does he agree that we must also be very careful that individuals in this country have freedom of religious belief, particularly given the level of abuse and intolerance following the votes last week on abortion? Does he also agree that we should decry the fact that at St Vincent de Paul parish in East Kilbride in my constituency parishioners arrived this morning to find that their Our Lady of the Grotto had been destroyed by mindless vandals? Does the hon. Gentleman agree that these issues are also troubling people across the United Kingdom?
The hon. Lady is right. Of course, the first place that we should champion and protect religious freedom is here in the United Kingdom; that is of course our first duty as Members of Parliament, but let us not forget the duty we also owe to persecuted minorities around the world—to stand up and protect them as well.
In Saudi Arabia public places of Christian worship are banned. There are regular crackdowns and raids on private Christian ceremonies, and Christians in Saudi Arabia are regularly imprisoned. Saudi Arabian schools use textbooks that teach hatred against Christians and Jews, and the country’s Grand Mufti recently said that Christianity is not a religion.
Christians are often a target for religious extremists. The terrible attack in Sri Lanka at Easter this year saw 259 people murdered by Islamist extremists, and on Palm Sunday in Egypt in 2017 ISIS bombers murdered 45 Coptic Christians. In Pakistan the year before, again at Easter, the Taliban murdered 75 Christians. These are just a few of the terrible examples of the persecution and murder that Christians around the world are suffering.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful case, and the Bishop of Truro’s report is a very strong one, but I am sure that my hon. Friend would also recognise that there are terrible cases of persecution against other religions elsewhere in the world, of which that against the Muslim Rohingya in Burma is one of worst recent examples. Does he agree that there are cases about religions in general which the Foreign Office should also be considering in its policy?
Yes, of course the Foreign Office should take a strong position on the persecution of any religious minorities, and of course the persecution of the Rohingya Muslims in Burma is a particularly egregious example. I am certainly not saying that we should ignore other examples of persecution, but I am drawing the House’s attention to the fact that 80% of religious persecution around the world is committed against Christians, and we should be mindful of that.
I completely agree with what the hon. Gentleman is saying about this situation, which is deeply horrific. I, too, spoke on an Open Doors panel, at the Labour party conference last year. He mentioned Saudi Arabia and Pakistan; does he accept that there is a fundamental problem here in that we have a series of alliances and relationships with these countries, but often turn a blind eye to the fact that they are persecuting Christians and indeed other religious minorities? Does he also agree that there is another problem in that we often do not know how many Christians are even in those countries, because people are fearful of stating what their religion is in the first place?
I agree with both points—not knowing how many people are affected and the fact that we have quite close relationships with some of these countries.
For western Governments to fail to act makes us in many ways complicit in some of these outrages. As the noble Lord Alton has argued many times, failing to stand up to protect minorities simply serves to encourage the persecutors. Lord Alton has often referred to the fact that the world’s indifference made possible the slaughter of 1.5 million Christian Armenians between 1915 and 1917. He makes the point that ignoring some of these atrocities encourages even worse atrocities to be perpetrated in the future; Lord Alton has made that point very powerfully on many occasions.
Against that backdrop, the Bishop of Truro’s work has never been more important, and I fully support his report. The Bishop finds that the persecution and murder of Christians around the world is
“the most shocking abuse of human rights in the modern era.”
In particular, I support the Bishop’s call for a UN resolution stating that those countries that are responsible for tolerating or encouraging the persecution of Christians and religious minorities must instead protect them.
I am afraid I have seen instances of Christians killing Christians; obviously, I am referring to Bosnia, where I witnessed that. So it is not just other religions having a go at Christians; it is actually Christians on Christians—almost blue on blue.
I am aware of my hon. Friend’s military service in Bosnia and the fact that he was in the country when the Srebrenica massacre of 1995 took place, and we should be mindful of those sorts of atrocities as well as the other ones we are talking about today.
I also support the Bishop of Truro’s call for the Government and the UN to impose sanctions on those countries who fail to protect religious minorities, and I also support his call for British diplomatic staff to be trained on this issue and for it to be made a priority of British foreign policy to put pressure on Governments who are turning a blind eye to this.
There is even more we can do. As the right hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) suggested in his intervention, many of the countries where the persecution of Christians is tolerated or even state-sponsored receive direct foreign aid from the United Kingdom. Many of those countries will wish to secure trade and investment deals with us and many of them also buy arms from the UK, which requires a UK Government export licence. I would like to see the UK Government do more to link overseas aid, trade and arms exports to real progress in tackling the persecution of religious minorities. Why should we send British taxpayers’ money to a Government, or indeed sell them arms, when they allow or encourage the persecution of religious minorities? Ideally, we should ensure that these steps are taken on a multinational basis, together with our European Union and United Nations partners, but if that cannot be secured, the UK should be prepared to act alone. The UK Government cannot and must not simply mouth platitudes; we must take real action. By approving the motion today, this House will make clear its view. The Government should then act.