International Freedom of Religion or Belief Day

Last week, Mark responded on behalf of the Government in the Westminster Hall debate tabled by Jim Shannon MP regarding International Freedom of Religion or Belief Day. To read the whole debate on Hansard, please click here.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)

I beg to move,

That this House has considered international freedom of religion or belief day 2018.

It is a pleasure to introduce this debate. Thank you, Mr Walker, for chairing it—it is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship. International Freedom of Religion or Belief Day will take place on Saturday 27 October. I thank right hon. and hon. Members—particularly those who will make contributions—for coming along. The fact that we debate this issue annually does not take away from its importance. It is good to consider again where there are problems.

I thank the Minister and the Government for their actions to advance the right of freedom of religion or belief. The appointment of Lord Ahmad as the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religious belief is very welcome. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has appointed more staff to its FORB team and, crucially, committed to developing a statistical database to track FORB violations around the world. Those are significant and commendable steps to advance FORB. I truly appreciate the efforts of the Government and in particular of the Minister, who I know will always speak out for those who have no voice. That is the reason we are here.

We are privileged to have Ministers who are so compassionate and committed to the cause of human rights. As I have said many times, I am thrilled that we have the right Ministers in the right place at the right time. I very much look forward to hearing the Government’s plans for commemorating International Freedom of Religion or Belief Day and for defending and promoting that vital human right.

Unfortunately, despite the amazing work that has been done, there is much still to do. FORB violations are rampant and truly global. Earlier today, at a panel on Afghanistan, I spoke about freedom of religious belief and how religious minorities of all kinds are persecuted in that country. Other Members will speak about Pakistan, which I recently visited with the hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Ms Rimmer) and Lord Alton. We had an opportunity to express concerns on behalf of religious minorities there, which we did with some fervour. I know she will speak about that.

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The Minister for Asia and the Pacific (Mark Field)

I thank the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) for summing up for his party. One of the most important things about this issue is that it should ​be considered on a cross-party basis. That is not to say that there will not at times be disagreements about how we go about trying to promote freedom of religious belief, but I am pleased that he made such a strong case on behalf of the Opposition. We need to work together, and I make an open offer to him and to the SNP spokesman: if they want to come to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to learn more about the precise nature of the deep work that is done in this area, I would be only too happy for them to do so. That might be useful, given that we will have many more such debates.

I disagreed with one thing that the hon. Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) said. This really is not about the Minister; it is about everyone else. These are Back-Bench debates, and while I shall try to answer the matters raised—please forgive me if I fail to do so; I will take some things up in writing—I have spent long enough on the Back Benches, rather than in a ministerial office, to recognise that it is very important to ensure that everyone has their say, instead of spending too much ministerial time on these issues. The hon. Gentleman also touched on Saudi Arabia, which is slightly outside the main scope of today’s debate, and I do not want to put a foot wrong by giving him incorrect information, so if he will forgive me, I will write to him in detail afterwards.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on marking International Freedom of Religion or Belief Day once again. I am glad for my own good that it is a once-a-year occasion, but I know that, like many Members here, he takes this very seriously, 365 days a year. As ever, I pay great tribute to him and to all members of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief for their tireless and persistent advocacy on this issue around the world. This Saturday, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London and our posts across the globe will be marking the day in a variety of ways, all of which are designed to demonstrate the UK’s steadfast commitment to this fundamental human right.

That commitment is part of our broader policy of defending and promoting universal human rights and freedoms, which are a vital component of the rules-based international system. Freedom and equality must remain the bedrock of democracy, the form of government that we all recognise as delivering security, wellbeing and, hopefully, high levels of prosperity for all citizens. Promoting human rights also goes hand in hand with open markets and free trade, which nurture economic prosperity alongside genuine security and stability. Those are the conditions that ensure that all citizens can enjoy their political rights and freedoms. That is why we remain at the forefront of states that promote universally a culture of respect for human rights. I am very excited at the prospect of having both France and Germany on the Security Council over the next two years, as my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) pointed out, which will mean having three large, western European nations with great reach across the globe, hopefully being able to make a real impact in this area.

We embrace the work that engages foreign Governments, both bilaterally and in multilateral forums such as the UN Human Rights Council. I reiterate all sentiments about the European Court of Human Rights as an important pillar for ensuring that we move forward correctly. It also invites work on ambitious campaigns on totemic issues: we work on eradicating modern ​slavery, preventing sexual violence in conflict, and promoting gender equality in all aspects of life, but notably in girls’ education—something that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is very committed to. On the back of our own Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting here in London, we are working with 52 other nations across the Commonwealth to ensure 12 years of education for all girls around the world.

Let me say a little bit about Lord Ahmad’s role—it was brought up, and I feel it is worth touching on. The UK Government remain active at the highest levels, not least within the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, in standing up for the rights of people of all faiths and of none. The Prime Minister’s appointment in July of my noble Friend the Minister for Human Rights as her special envoy on freedom of religion or belief signalled the UK’s determination to step up our action to address religious discrimination and to promote mutual understanding and respect. It is important to recognise that the title of Prime Minister’s special envoy makes a real difference. It opens a lot of doors for anyone in that role, and it is a respected title across the world.

Lord Ahmad will lead renewed and targeted international efforts on this issue, including by raising awareness of the benefits to society of religious diversity and respect for all faiths and for none, which many Members have mentioned. His first objective is to up the tempo of the UK’s response to violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief and to focus on certain countries in particular. As colleagues know, promoting human rights, and specifically advocating for freedom of religion or belief, has long been a focus of the work of our embassies, high commissions and consulates general overseas.

Fiona Bruce (Congleton) (Con)

I hope the Minister can tell us whether Lord Ahmad is being provided with any additional resources and staff support to fulfil this additional role, as we have seen in countries such as Canada and, I think, the US. He already has a ministerial role, so what are the Government doing to enhance his support in this additional role?

Mark Field

I was going to come to that, because it was raised by our hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell). Let me set out Lord Ahmad’s objectives. He will have two additional full-time staff working alongside our diplomatic network and international partners to work across Departments for a step change on freedom of religion or belief within diplomacy, to promote FORB in key countries of concern—obviously those will change from time to time, with their particular circumstances—and to respond effectively to any instances of the suppression of FORB that we are made aware of. I appreciate that there are only two members of staff, but there will be a greater emphasis on that issue in our embassies and high commissions overseas, not least among those who are employed locally.

I have raised the issue of freedom of religious belief on my travels over the past few months—for example, with the Nepalese Prime Minister. I have raised our concerns about the deteriorating human rights situation in Xinjiang with the Chinese Vice Premier. The Foreign Secretary reiterated our concerns about Xinjiang with Chinese state councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi when he visited in July. As hon. Members have said, we ​have increasingly grave concerns about the human rights situation in China and the Chinese Government’s deepening crackdown. Credible reports have been published recently about re-education camps and widespread surveillance and restrictions targeted at ethnic minorities. That issue has been covered in The Economist and elsewhere for some months.

Lord Ahmad has been extremely active in promoting human rights, including the freedom of religion or belief, in Sudan. For example, he expressed our serious concern about the persecution of Christians and the wanton destruction of places of worship. At the recent UN General Assembly in New York, in a meeting we hosted, to which many other countries were invited, he drew attention to the scourge of antisemitism and to the UN report on the crisis in Burma, which concluded that the Burmese military may have inflicted genocide. It has certainly carried out ethnic cleansing and has committed crimes against humanity against the Rohingya.

For the avoidance of any doubt, genocide is a legal term, so my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) will understand that we therefore tend not to use it. We do not wish to downplay the issue, but the term is legal rather than political, and it makes more sense for us to focus on political issues on which we can hold people to account directly.

Fiona Bruce

I thank the Minister for pointing that out. I used the term advisedly in this respect today.

Mark Field

I appreciate that.

Earlier in the year, Lord Ahmad met a range of religious leaders in Israel to discuss their concerns. He also met Yazidi and Christian leaders in Iraq to hear about their experiences and to reiterate the UK’s commitment to freedom of religion or belief across Iraq.

A number of hon. Member raised the especially distressing case of Asia Bibi. I assure hon. Members that we have been following the case very closely. I have made plain our views, and will continue to do so as a matter of principle, about the death penalty, let alone for that particular charge, and about the injustices that minorities in Pakistan face. I have made a number of representations to Pakistani authorities at all levels. We are at a highly sensitive moment in that very distressing case, so I am not able explain publicly what we and international partners are saying privately to the Pakistani authorities.

There are lots of issues to cover, so hon. Members will have to forgive me if there are things that I am unable to cover. If time runs away from me, I will catch up with hon. Members subsequently in writing. The hon. Member for Strangford raised a number of issues that I hope I have already covered. On DFID, we want to work with Lord Ahmad on a cross-governmental basis. I will say a bit more about that later.

I think I have covered the points that my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) raised. I confess that I could not agree more with what he said; it was very refreshing. It makes life easier for us if we can say, “This is not special pleading because there are Christian groups here. The Christian groups want to see the rights of all religious groups upheld. This is a human rights issue first and foremost.” That makes our argument so much more powerful. I echo my hon. Friend’s very valuable point.​

The hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Ms Rimmer) touched on a number of very important issues. The issue of organ harvesting is almost unbelievable. She will understand that, although I am not questioning the reports in any way, we need to get to the bottom of exactly what has happened. She will be aware that, in the past, organs have been harvested from people who have been executed. It is a grisly situation. We remain deeply concerned about the persecution of Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Falun Gong practitioners and others in China simply because of their religious belief. We believe that societies that aim to guarantee freedom of religion are more stable, prosperous and resilient to violent extremism. The very wise words of my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford on this matter were right. What have they got to fear? China is moving ahead in the world, including in terms of prosperity. The hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston will appreciate why arguments about culture in particular have to be made privately, but please be assured that we do make our concerns felt.

It was interesting that the hon. Lady talked about Kachin and Shan states in Burma, rather than about the Rohingya situation, which has been discussed and on which a huge amount of work is being done in the international community. We are very concerned about the ongoing violence and we do not take the view that that part of Burma is stable and secure. There are human rights concerns, particularly relating to Christians, about those areas, which are run by both the Burmese army and armed ethnic groups. We raised concerns about the treatment of ethnic minorities in Burma, including in Kachin and Shan, in the Human Rights Council in September 2017. The former Foreign Secretary raised the matter during his March 2018 visit to Burma, and the new Foreign Secretary went to Burma and met Aung San Suu Kyi as recently as September this year. I know that all hon. Members will continue to press the Government of Burma on the crucial need for interfaith dialogue and religious tolerance.

The hon. Lady and the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) touched on the reports that Pakistani refugees are rounded up and placed in detention centres in Thailand when they are assessed to be of the Ahmadi religion. We are following the recent deterioration in Thailand and will continue to do so. It is particularly sad, because there has been progress in many of these areas in that country in recent years. We understand that there are approximately 100 people, mainly from Pakistan, whom the Thai authorities consider to be illegal immigrants, and this follows arrests of Cambodian and Vietnamese nationals at the end of August. We understand that about 200 people claim refugee and asylum status and are in immigration detention. Some of them are already registered under the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. I am in touch with David Miliband on that matter.

We believe that the recent orders are not aimed at any specific group but apply to anyone the Thai authorities deem to be an illegal visa overstayer, as part of the general tightening of immigration enforcement. In September, a senior official from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office raised our concerns about the treatment of those in immigration detention with the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs. We will continue to work with the Thai authorities to improve detention ​conditions. The hon. Members for St Helens South and Whiston and for Mitcham and Morden will have to forgive me for not saying any more now. If we have more to pass on, we will try to do so in writing, but let us make sure we stay in touch on this issue.

The hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden has been a great advocate for the Ahmadis, and we have discussed the matter previously in the House. As she is aware, Lord Ahmad is of that religion, and she can be assured that he will raise the issue across the globe at every appropriate opportunity.

My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton raised a number of issues. I raised concerns about freedom of religious belief with Nepal’s Prime Minister Oli when I met him on 6 May during my visit to Kathmandu. I sought the same sort of assurances that my hon. Friend sought from me on precisely how the penal code was to be enforced, and we made it very clear that we would be very reluctant to see it being used to restrict full freedom of religious practice, especially for religious minorities.

In addition, our embassy in Nepal—we have a tremendous ambassador there in Richard Morris—regularly discusses human rights issues including freedom of religious belief with the Government of Nepal. Nepal does not receive a huge amount of DFID money, which is one of our concerns. We feel that it would be appropriate to have a number of other DFID programmes in Nepal—we have a tremendous historical connection, particularly between the Gurkhas and the Ministry of Defence—but we undertake significant work in that regard.

We have been closely monitoring the legal provision on freedom of religious belief included in the reforms to the national penal code in Nepal. The embassy has heard the concerns of the interfaith council—in fact, I heard them myself at a meeting in early May—about the lack of provision for registering religious organisations and the problems that they face in trying to conduct their day-to-day activities as non-governmental organisations, so we are keeping that under a fairly constant review.

My hon. Friend the Member for Henley is a great advocate for Nigeria and has done a tremendous job as a trade envoy there—I know how much work goes into that. I know there is to be a full debate on the situation in Nigeria, for which we will have more evidence, and I suspect it will be either for me or for the Minister for Africa, my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin), to respond to that debate. For now, let me say that the Prime Minister raised the issue with President Buhari during her visit to Nigeria in the summer, and emphasised the need to tackle the crisis through mediation and conciliation—the general community conflict advice. With the wisdom that comes from knowing more about that country, my hon. Friend the Member for Henley was absolutely right to identify that the situation is more than a simple religious issue. It is a little more complicated it might appear, although there are clear religious elements. In her representations, the Prime Minister was clear that the violence must stop while work is done to meet the needs of all affected communities. The Foreign Secretary raised the subject when he wrote to his counterpart in August, and the British high commissioner in Abuja has raised the issue with the Nigerian vice-president, with President Buhari’s chief of staff, and with a number of other governors of affected states.​

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr). He spoke about a number of issues, some of which I have touched on, namely the concerns about DFID funding and the Yazidis in Iraq.

I know we are running out of time, so I will finish by stressing that this is not just an issue for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. One of the most important things I do in much of my work on matters ranging from climate change to international energy policy or cyber-security, is recognise that one of the great strengths of our sometimes much-maligned system of government—we are perhaps a little too self-deprecating about it—is the international reach of our Foreign and Commonwealth Office through the number of posts that it has across the world. We feel that it is important to take the UK’s work on religious freedom forward—it is very much a “One HMG” effort, as we put it. For example, the Department for International Development has increased its own engagement on the issue, which I think is very important, although it is a probably a step too far at the moment for development aid to be contingent on money coming through for that sort of work, as one or two of my hon. Friends were suggesting.

I am always struck by the fact DFID money goes to help some of the most vulnerable people. For example, we have had strong difficulties with Cambodia. We have tried to engage, but I think that, for example, paring back our funding for demining on the basis that we had disagreements about press freedom in Cambodia would have been the wrong step to take. By staying committed to a range of development and aid work, we can at least keep some sort of dialogue going, even if we might disapprove of that Government’s actions. That begins to build a degree of trust, and we can start moving in the right direction in other areas.

Although I understand the points rightly made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford, ending that assistance would be a retrograde step. If we get the development issues right and recognise that development is an integral part of a state’s recovery—that notion applies to Pakistan in particular, which is the single biggest recipient of DFID funds—we can hope that having a piece of the action in that respect buys us a place at the table to continue to make plain representations and achieve movement in the right direction. We should not hold out huge hopes in all individual cases, but I will take on board the important concerns expressed my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton and make sure that they are passed back to Islamabad.

Jeremy Lefroy (Stafford) (Con)

Will the Minister give way?

Mark Field

I hope my hon. Friend will forgive me but I am worried about running out of time, and I know that the hon. Member for Strangford will also want to get a word in at the end.

DFID’s wider programme is also designed to benefit religious minorities. As I touched on, in Iraq some £237.5 million in humanitarian support has helped Christians, Yazidis and other minorities who have been forced to flee persecution by Daesh. At the Foreign Office, we have also increased our support for freedom of religion or belief through the Magna Carta fund to over £1 million. That will fund projects in countries such as Burma, Indonesia, Iraq and Sudan.​

Respect in education is a key element of our freedom of religion or belief strategy. Children are not born prejudiced; sadly, prejudice is learned. It does not have to be that way, and we believe that more should be done in schools to ensure that children remain as open minded as possible and respectful of difference. As the hon. Member for Leeds North East rightly said, respect is the operative word here. We believe that it is not simply enough to promote tolerance; indeed, that word alone suggests a begrudging acceptance. We plan to create a step-by-step guide for teachers and schools around the world to draw them into best practice and help them foster greater respect for different faiths and beliefs.

Naturally, learning does not end at school, and colleagues may recall that when we last debated this issue, I mentioned our efforts to increase religious literacy across the civil service. I am sure that hon. Members will be pleased to know that our collaboration with the LSE Faith Centre is proving extremely popular, and annual faith and diplomacy courses for staff across Whitehall are now very well attended. In addition to such projects and initiatives, we continue to promote the issue internationally with our bilateral advocacy. We work with like-minded partners as well as with civil society across the globe.

The UK Government remain absolutely convinced of the key importance of freedom of religion or belief, not just because it is a basic human right, but because it goes hand in hand with all the other rights and democratic freedoms that make up the foundations of a fair, stable and successful society. That is why my ministerial colleagues and I are committed to promoting and protecting freedom of religion, and I am so pleased that that applies to Parliament more widely. I thank everyone for their contributions. Through Government, we shall work and strive for a better world—a world in which there is greater mutual understanding and respect, where everyone is able to practise their faith or to hold no faith at all, and to live the life that they choose.