Christians Overseas

Yesterday, Mark responded on behalf of the Government in his role as Minister for Asia and the Pacific in the Westminster Hall debate tabled by Chris Philp MP regarding the persecution of Christians overseas. To read the whole debate on Hansard, please click here.

***

The Minister for Asia and the Pacific (Mark Field)

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Chris Philp) for initiating the debate. I particularly respect his consistent and long-standing commitment—well, long-standing for a colleague of three years, anyway—to the issue during all his time in the House. He and other hon. Members from across the House have given appalling examples of the persecution of Christians overseas. I fear that I will not be able to do justice in the relatively short time available to their heartfelt contributions, but I will, if necessary, write to those whose issues I am unable to address in these few words.

I thank the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman). She made a very good point. I am a great believer in joined-up government. Sometimes I fear that, between the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Home Office, things are not quite as joined up as they should be on these sorts of matters, and I will do my level best to take up the hon. Lady’s case and address it more avidly, if she will give me the details.

Sir Roger Gale (North Thanet) (Con)

While we are on the subject of joined-up government, will my right hon. Friend use his good offices to seek to ensure that, when Christian clerics are invited to the United Kingdom on religious visits, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Home Office will facilitate visas rather than blocking them?

Mark Field

No doubt I will have the specifics of that matter before too long. Yes, I will endeavour to do that for my hon. Friend.

The Government are, sadly, all too familiar with research conducted in recent years by reputable organisations that shows that the persecution of Christians is on the rise. In the 12 months to October, Open Doors concluded that more than 200 million Christians in 50 countries experienced what it regards as a high level ​of persecution. Its latest watch list charts a swathe of Christian persecution stretching from northern and western Africa to North Korea.

I should at this point like to touch on the situation in Nigeria— an issue that a number of Members expressed concern about. In addition to the challenges presented by Boko Haram, particularly in the north and on the north-eastern border with Cameroon, Nigeria faces daily violence in its central regions between Christian farmers and predominantly Muslim Fulani cattle herders. That cycle of violent clashes has resulted in countless deaths, particularly in recent years, and even in the destruction of entire villages, which we of course condemn.

I fully understand the concerns that have been raised. I should stress that this is a long-running conflict with complex causes, including land, farming rights, grazing routes and access to water, as well as the religious divisions referred to. Along with my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell), I warmly welcome President Buhari’s engagement on the issue. It is imperative that the Nigerian Government and the military work together with the affected populations to bring perpetrators to justice and develop a solution that meets the needs of all the communities affected, as British officials will continue to encourage them to do.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman) wanted some reassurance. The Foreign Secretary spoke to the Nigerian vice-president following the abductions of the Dapchi, and the Prime Minister herself, during the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, raised these issues with President Buhari on 16 April. Our view is that the attacks on schools must stop. My right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden is right, unfortunately, that the terrible events in the north-east of the country and the abductions—still—of over 100 schoolgirls have disappeared from the media, and this is an opportunity to raise the issue, as we will do in Abuja and beyond.

Returning to the broader theme, Christian persecution takes many forms. As we have heard, places of worship in far too many countries are targeted, shut down or even destroyed. Followers are discriminated against, subjected to mob attack and criminalised—in some cases, by the state. Many live in fear for their lives, and many thousands have been forced to flee their homes.

In whatever form it manifests itself, all religious persecution is abhorrent and deplorable. Governments, religious groups and right-minded people must do all they can to bring it to an end. I am glad that point was raised by a number of Members, including my hon. Friends the Members for Torbay (Kevin Foster) and for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double), among others.

In our work around the globe, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office will stand up for religious freedom—full stop. We do not do that simply for Christians; indeed, one has to recognise that for us to stand up exclusively for Christians would risk protecting a minority perhaps close to many western hearts to the exclusion of others or would, indeed, risk making them more vulnerable.

I assure Members—I saw this in my most recent visit—that we do our best to recognise that the persecution of Christians has become much more profound in particular parts of the world, not least China. I hope to come back to the point made by the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) later.

Fiona Bruce

The Minister talks about bringing perpetrators to justice. Two years ago in a debate in this House, Parliament voted by 278 Members to nil to call on the Government to take action to hold to account the perpetrators of genocide against Christians, Yazidis and others in Syria and Iraq. Will he say what action has been taken since then, or perhaps write to us? In his response then, the Minister’s colleague said that the UK is taking an international lead on the issue. Will the Minister meet Lord Alton and me to discuss the genocide determination Bills we have introduced in our respective Houses? They would go some way to addressing the issue.

Mark Field

I will meet my hon. Friend. If she will excuse me, I will write to her with some of the details she has asked for.

We believe that religious freedom is a bellwether of broader individual freedoms, democratic health and, ultimately, economic health. For all those reasons, it is a priority for this Government to defend and promote the rights of not only Christians but peoples of all faiths and none so that they can practise their faith or belief without fear or discrimination.

I could say much—time is running tight—about aspects of the bilateral work we do. Earlier this month, I visited Nepal. I expressed concern to Prime Minister Oli in a meeting I had with him that uncertainty around provisions of the new penal code might be used to limit the freedom to adopt, change or practise a religion. Those provisions can especially target Christian minorities. I also raised concerns about freedom of religion or belief and about the protection of minority religious communities in Pakistan with the Ministry of Human Rights during my visit to that country in November.

Needless to say, we will continue to raise concerns with the authorities in China at our annual UK-China human rights dialogue and on other occasions about the increasingly worrying and widespread persecution of Christian minorities—particularly those converting from other religions. Our values form an integral part of our relationship with China; indeed, the Prime Minister raised human rights issues when she met President Xi and Prime Minister Li earlier this year.

Chris Philp

Will the Minister give way?

Mark Field

If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I only have a small amount of time left.

So far this year my ministerial colleagues have raised issues about freedom of religion or belief with counterparts in such places as Iraq, Egypt and Burma. My hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch and Upminster (Julia Lopez) mentioned Indonesia. We have made representations to the Indonesian Government to ensure that the proposed blasphemy laws are not applied on their current rather discriminatory basis. I will be going to that country for four days in August and will raise those issues then. My hon. Friend will appreciate the strong intelligence and security relationship we have with Indonesia. That is not in any way to forgive any of these issues, but we have important intelligence relationships, not least because of the global threat, particularly in Mindanao, which is just the other side of the Philippine border.

It is not just about Government-to-Government work. I could say much about NGO and project work, but I think it would be worth while to focus the end of my ​comments on issues around aid conditionality that have been brought up by a number of Members—particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy). It is important to state that the Department for International Development has its own faith-based principles that provide a framework for engaging faith partners in development. It also wants to actively support faith-based NGOs to apply to the UK Aid Connect fund, which is a funding pot for smaller NGOs.

In addition to our discussions with Governments, it has been suggested that UK overseas aid should be entirely conditional on recipient Governments taking concrete action to end religious persecution. I reassure the House that we challenge our development partners precisely and specifically on these issues, in whichever country they arise. There may be countries where we disapprove of what they are doing.

This is a non-religious issue, but in Cambodia we have had opposition leaders being locked up. However, equally, we have long-standing relationships in aid and development terms, particularly in mine clearance in parts of that country. The interests of some of the most vulnerable are at stake. If we do not clear those mines, arable land will not be able to be used. While it is right that these things are conditional and that guidelines are set down, we equally have to recognise that we are sometimes acting for the most vulnerable with a range of aid programmes. Simply to cut off that money mid-flow would not be the right way forward.

Generally, DFID will assess a country’s commitment to each of the four partnership principles. One of those is a commitment to human rights, which includes freedom of religion or belief. Evidence of a lack of commitment to the principles influences decisions on how much aid is given and in what manner it is passed out. For example, it might mean that aid is provided through civil society organisations, rather than Government bodies. Our aim is to support projects that can stimulate positive change in the countries concerned, such as our project to help secondary school teachers promote religious freedom in classrooms across parts of north Africa.

The hon. Member for Croydon South specifically mentioned Pakistan. As I have said, Ministers have raised concerns with the Government in Islamabad this year. We are doing a great deal of work through our projects to try to benefit religious minorities in Pakistan. Last year, for example, we had an £800,000 FCO project to counter hate speech and a £200,000 project to celebrate Pakistan’s religious diversity.

We should all be proud of the life-saving impact of our overseas aid on persecuted religious groups. While we do not allocate humanitarian support to them specifically—because we believe it could be counterproductive—our policy of prioritising those most in need means such groups are often the beneficiaries.

I share many of the concerns that have been raised by other Members. The situation is desperate in Iraq and Syria. Some 1.5 million Christians lived in Iraq as recently as 2003. It is understood that fewer than a ​quarter of a million now remain. Likewise, in Syria, huge numbers of Christians are now in refugee camps in Lebanon or have fled the country. Very few, I suspect, will feel it is safe to return any time soon.

In conclusion, I thank Members for all their contributions. I fear that a 90-second speaking limit does not do anything like justice to the passion they all feel. Less is more sometimes, but not always in every parliamentary debate I have been part of. As a Government, we will continue to defend the fundamental right of religious freedom, not least because of our commitment to the universal declaration on human rights. I very much hope that other Members will have a chance to speak at much greater length. I will endeavour to look through this debate in Hansard and reply individually to each Member whose points I was not able to pick up in this contribution.